Research shows money stress can make people up to 20 times more likely to make a suicide attempt. Here's the psychology behind it, according to doctors—plus steps to move forward and save lives.

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Financial hardship is (unfortunately) a common problem. According to Business Insider, the average American is $52,940 in debt; this includes money owed for mortgages, leases, as well as student, auto, and personal loans. It also includes credit card debt. And while many of us are keenly aware of how financial stress impacts our lives—it can have physiological affects, for example, and cause everything from headaches to abdominal discomfort—most people don't know that financial hardship is a major risk factor for suicide. In fact, Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, tells Health that finances are a leading causes of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

Financial Hardship Is a Major Risk Factor for Suicide, Experts Say , unhappy beauty girl having bad trouble and getting depression illness sitting on wooden floor daydreaming in money background
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"Financial stress is a significant risk factor for suicide, particularly among people who are tasked with the role of 'provider' or those who are responsible for preserving the lifestyle of those who depend upon them," says Dr. Romanoff. Being unemployed and/or underemployed, she adds, can also contribute to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and loss—and having a high debt-to-income ratio is a mental health risk factor.

"Studies show that people who struggle with debt are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety," psychiatrist Aniko Dunn, MD, tells Health. Both depression and anxiety, she adds, can lead to suicidal ideations or attempts.

Of course, it's not recent news that a correlation exists between homelessness, joblessness, debt, financial stress, and suicide. A 2017 study by Aggrawal et. al. published in PLoS One found that financial crisis and what the researchers call "adverse economic sentiment" increased suicide rates after the housing market crash of 2008. A 2018 article from the Aspen Institute explains that "the potential of suicide increases among financially distressed individuals as debt levels become harder to manage."

A statement from the Pennsylvania Suicide Prevention Coalition revealed similar findings: "Mounting debt, losing a job, a home, or retirement income can be linked to a wide variety of negative health outcomes," the Coalition explained. "Such stressors may lead to thoughts of suicide or even to attempts and completions." And a 2020 study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology showed financial hardship can make people up to 20 times more likely to make (or take) an attempt on their lives.

"We studied homelessness, unemployment, debt, and low income," wrote Eric Elbogen, PhD, study author and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. "Our research... [revealed] that financial stressors play a major role in suicides."

In fact, the study showed that the risk of suicide grew with each added stressor—and those who experienced all four financial stressors were 20 times more likely to make an attempt.

"Economic stress plays a major role in suicides and needs to be recognized and applauded in light of the unprecedented economic instability resulting from the COVID-19 epidemic," adds Dr. Dunn. If not, both he and Dr. Elbogen fear we may see a "dramatic increase" in suicide rates moving forward.

"The financial conditions [we studied] are being magnified by this COVID pandemic," says Dr. Elbogen in a U.S. News piece. "Given those realities, it's going to be really important for clinicians, policymakers, and the public to keep in mind the link between financial strain and suicide." In fact, noting (and addressing) the relation between the two is of the utmost importance.

That said, individuals struggling with debt, homelessness, joblessness, and feelings of hopelessness should know they are not alone—there is both help and hope. 

"Many companies offer free counseling to solve financial problems, be it debt management, budgeting and commitment, finding work, communicating with lenders, or claiming benefits or financial assistance," says Dr. Dunn. "Whether you have a friend or loved one to talk to for emotional support, it is always a good idea to take practical advice from an expert. Reaching out is not a sign of weakness and does not mean you have failed as a provider, parent, or spouse. Rather, it means that you are smart enough to recognize that your financial situation is putting you under stress and that you need to address it." 

"Speaking about debt with a trusted person can also help ease the weight," adds Romanoff, "as it will help you gain insight into ways to manage it and create a plan to which you can be held accountable."

It's also important to take a multifaceted approach, i.e. join a support group. There are numerous programs which help individuals navigate financial hardships and burdens. You can (and should) seek counseling, for both your mental needs and your financial ones, and taking financial management classes can be helpful as well. Journaling and making a realistic budget can help you organize your thoughts and stay on track.

"Income support might help, but if people misuse their money, if they haven't gotten financial education, they could still go into debt, risk becoming homeless—and the current study shows that would increase risk of suicide attempts," says Elbogen. For that reason, "health professionals can, in addition to psychotropic medications and psychotherapy, consider job retraining, vocational rehab, housing assistance, financial support systems, financial education, [and] debt management."

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts due to stress of debt or monetary hardship, seek emergency help—call the suicide hotline below, 911, or get to your nearest emergency department. Also, call a friend, co-worker, or clergyperson. 

The first step to coping is getting help. Talk to a mental health professional about the thoughts or anxiety symptoms you may be experiencing. Very often, what feels like an overwhelming catastrophe really isn't, and processing this with a therapist or counselor can help you learn ways to control those unwanted thoughts. Also, consider calling a financial advisor or counselor to strategize potential solutions or options going forward, once the immediate risk of harm has passed.

If you or someone you love is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.