Financial Stress Is a Leading Catalyst for Suicide—How To Help Save Lives

Research shows money stress can make people up to 20 times more likely to attempt suicide. Doctors explain the psychology behind financial stress and suicide and provide steps to move forward and save lives.

Financial hardship is (unfortunately) a common problem. According to a 2022 report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average American is $52,940 in debt. This debt includes credit card debt, money owed for mortgages, and leases, as well as student, auto, and personal loans.

While many of us are keenly aware of how financial stress impacts our lives, it can also have physiologic effects—causing everything from headaches to abdominal discomfort. But 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, told Health that finances are a leading cause of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

According to a 2020 study published in Community Mental Health Journal, over 50% of adults in the U.S. reported having two or more financial worries.

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 Worries and Mental Health

"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," Romanoff said. Being unemployed and/or underemployed, Romanoff added, 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, told Health. Both depression and anxiety, Dr. Dunn added, can lead to suicidal ideations or attempts.

Research has clearly identified a correlation between homelessness, joblessness, debt, financial stress, and suicide. A 2017 study published in PLoS One found that the financial crisis and what the researchers called "adverse economic sentiment" increased suicide rates after the housing market crash of 2008. A 2018 article from the Aspen Institute explained that "the potential of suicide increases among financially distressed individuals as debt levels become harder to manage."

Financial Stress and Suicide

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 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.

Financial hardship can make people up to 20 times more likely to make an attempt on their lives.

"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," added Dr. Dunn. If not, both Elbogen and Dr. Dunn fear we may see a "dramatic increase" in suicide rates during and post-pandemic.

"The financial conditions [we studied] are being magnified by this COVID pandemic," Elbogen was quoted in a 2020 U.S. News article. "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 relationship between the two is of the utmost importance.

What To Do About Financial Stress

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," Dr. Dunn said. "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," Romanoff added, "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. Examples of ways to address financial worries include:

  • Join a support group
  • Seek counseling (for mental health and financial help)
  • Take financial management classes
  • Organize your thoughts by journaling
  • Create a realistic budget for yourself

There are numerous programs that can help people navigate financial hardships and burdens.

Dr. Dunn

"Reaching out is not a sign of weakness and does not mean you have failed as a provider, parent, or spouse. Rather, it means you are smart enough to recognize that your financial situation is putting you under stress."

Dr. Dunn

"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 [2020] study shows that would increase risk of suicide attempts," Elbogen said. 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."

Don't Wait To Seek Help

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 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 trained 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.

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