STAFF at a debt resolution agency are undergoing training in suicide prevention due to the increasing number of distressed mortgage-holders who are threatening to end their lives over their crippling debts, the Sunday Independent has learned.
At least five indebted mortgage-holders a week are ringing the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation (IMHO) threatening suicide over stress and worry about losing their homes.
"In the last 18 months of operation, we're dealing with people in different states of distress," IMHO director David Hall told the Sunday Independent.
The 11 staff members who have fielded close to 1,200 phone calls and emails on mortgage and personal debts since mid-November are undergoing suicide prevention counselling with The Samaritans to cope with the growing tide of desperation among families who face losing their homes.
Banks and other lending institutions successfully repossessed 1,050 residential properties by the end of September this year -- including 544 properties repossessed through the courts.
Latest Central Bank figures reveal there were 141,520 private residential mortgages in arrears at the end of the third quarter of the year.
Rachel Downes, supervisor of the Mortgage Arrears Information Helpline run by the State's Citizens Information Board, said she had also noticed a surge in the number of people "who are distressed over losing their homes" over the past few months.
Recent changes to the Central Bank's Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears, or CCMA, that came into effect on July 1 has led to a lot of confusion and worry among mortgage-holders. Some of these had interest-only arrangements with the banks and are getting threatening letters ordering them to surrender their homes.
Noting that the four major banks issued 17,000 legal letters to mortgage-holders during the third quarter of this year alone -- on top of 1,830 legal proceedings taken during the same time frame -- Mr Hall said distressed mortgage-holders were feeling hounded and "tortured" by the banks.
For this reason, many are refusing to engage with them out of stress, confusion and fear of losing their homes -- which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as banks can now fast-track repossession proceedings through the courts for residential and investment mortgage-holders deemed to be "unco-operative".
The new law published by Justice Minister Alan Shatter in July overturns a High Court ruling in 2011 that prevented banks from repossessing homes and investment properties due to a loophole in the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act. But Mr Hall said many mortgage-holders were feeling bullied by the banks and "most people are terrified of the bank".
"It's torture. People are getting threatening letters that are completely over the top. Some say that if we don't hear back in 30 days, we'll initiate legal proceedings.
"The postman has become the enemy because he's delivering bad news."
A spokeswoman for the Irish Banking Federation refused to comment on claims of bullying by the banks.
She said the issue of engagement with distressed mortgage holders "remains a challenge".
However, "progress is being made", she added.