Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Personal debt and suicidal ideation

H. Meltzera1 c1, P. Bebbingtona2, T. Brughaa1a3, R. Jenkinsa4, S. McManusa5 and M. S. Dennisa6

a1 Department of Health Sciences, College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology, University of Leicester, UK

a2 Department of Mental Health Sciences, UCL, London, UK

a3 New Academic Unit, Leicester General Hospital, UK

a4 King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, UK

a5 National Centre for Social Research, London, UK

a6 The School of Medicine, Swansea University, UK


Background Personal debt is one of many factors associated with anxiety, depression and suicidality. The aim of this study was to examine the relationship between personal debt and suicidal ideation in the context of sociodemographic factors, employment and income, lifestyle behaviours, and recently experienced traumatic events.

Method Interviews were conducted with a random probability sample comprising 7461 respondents for the third national survey of psychiatric morbidity of adults in England. Fieldwork was carried out throughout 2007. The prevalence of suicidal thoughts in the past week, past year and lifetime was assessed and current sources of debt were recorded.

Results In 2007, 4.3% of adults in England had thought about taking their own life in the past 12 months, ranging from 1.8% of men aged ≥55 years to 7.0% of women aged 35–54 years. Those in debt were twice as likely to think about suicide after controlling for sociodemographic, economic, social and lifestyle factors. Difficulty in making hire purchase or mail order repayments and paying off credit card debt, in addition to housing-related debt (rent and mortgage arrears), was strongly associated with suicidal thoughts. Feelings of hopelessness partially mediated the relationship between debt and suicidal ideation.

Conclusions The number of debts, source of the debt and reasons for debt are key correlates of suicidal ideation. Individuals experiencing difficulties in repaying their debts because they are unemployed or have had a relationship breakdown or have heavy caring responsibilities may require psychiatric evaluation in addition to debt counselling.

(Received December 04 2009)

(Revised May 11 2010)

(Accepted May 16 2010)

(Online publication June 16 2010)


c1 Address for correspondence: Professor H. Meltzer, Professor of Mental Health and Disability, Department of Health Sciences, College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology, University of Leicester, 22–28 Princess Road West, Leicester LE1 6TP, UK. (Email: