'Five of our debt clients have taken their own lives'
Survey's shock findings reveal anguish of families now driven to depression and drink
Families dealing with crippling debt or living in imminent fear of losing their home have an increased risk of suffering from depression, drink problems and suicidal ideation, a shocking new survey reveals.
The Irish Mortgage Holders Association (IMHO) has been on the frontline of dealing with up to 20,000 homeowners from all across the country, who are in mortgage arrears, struggling to make repayments or have had their homes repossessed. It says five of its clients have taken their lives in just four years.
The IMHO has become "extremely concerned" about the detrimental impact of financial problems on its clients' mental health and wellbeing.
In an effort to shed light on the "hidden crisis", the non- profit organisation, which aims to facilitate independent debt resolution between lenders and mortgage holders, conducted a national survey on the psychological impact of debt in Ireland - the first ever detailed analysis focused on the personal turmoil that those in debt difficulty face on a daily basis.
The findings have been described as evidence of a "ticking time bomb" for individuals and their families.
Almost 500 men and women, aged 29-70, completed the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale - developed by Harvard Medical School in the United States.
Their overall debt ranged from less than €250,000 (an estimated 55pc of respondents), between €250,000 and €500,000 (almost 30pc of respondents), between €500,000 and €1m (more than 10pc of respondents) to debt in excess of €1m (an estimated 8pc of respondents).
Questions, based on their experience over a four-week period, included: How often did you feel nervous? How often did you feel tired for no good reason? How often did you feel hopeless? How often did you feel restless? How often did you feel tired for no good reason? How often did you feel depressed?
More than 40pc of participants said they felt depressed either "all of the time" or "most of the time".
Over 30pc said they had had suicidal thoughts in the last four weeks. At least 22pc admitted that they had "active plans" to kill themselves.
A total of 45pc of people indicated harmful levels of alcohol use. Almost 40pc said that they had felt bad or guilty over the amount of alcohol that they consumed.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, David Hall, CEO of IMHO, said the survey showed the stark reality facing almost 500 out of an estimated 150,000 who are in arrears between buy-to-let and family home mortgages.
"This situation is widespread. We've people from all walks of life but debt just paralyses everyone. No matter how dominant or strong or confident people are in their normal walks of life, debt cripples them," he said.
"There are people running big companies, managing large numbers of staff in significantly dominant positions within the country, and their debt renders them powerless and puts them under immense psychological pressure."
Mr Hall believes the hidden crisis is compounded by a lack of rapid access to help and relevant services to resolve the cause of stress, depression and suicidal feelings among those in financial difficulty.
The IMHO is calling for a "one-stop shop" of coherent services to provide support to people in debt - including resolutions, solutions, bankruptcy options and potential psychological support.
"We hope this survey and its results act as a wake-up call to a Government that has largely ignored this issue and made no attempt to provide proper resources to those affected," said Mr Hall. He stressed that a very significant number of respondents specifically referred to their fear of being made homeless.
"As we face into a government formation, all parties need to show leadership in ensuring that the reforms required to deal with legacy unsustainable debt are coupled with a comprehensive strategy to make sure that citizens are not unnecessarily, scarred for life by the experience," he said.
Commenting on the result, Dr Eddie Murphy, clinical psychologist and Independent Seanad candidate, said the findings confirmed the link between debt stress and suicide.
"Immediate action is needed to support those in debt stress as it impacts on individuals, families, communities and our society. This problem cannot be ignored," said Dr Murphy who is running in the Seanad elections to address the mental health crisis.
Earlier this month, figures from the Central Bank revealed that there are still 88,29 owner-occupier homes, or almost 12pc of total mortgage holders, behind on repayments.
Despite a continued reduction in all categories of arrears in the final quarter of 2015,there are still 36,351 owner-occupier mortgages in arrears of two or more years.
Anybody that is affected by debt or stress can call The Aware Support Line, at 1800 80 48 48.
The Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day at 116 123.