Sick and Mired: Are Your Debts Making You Crazy?

Close-up of a woman pulling her hair
Are your financial worries giving you a headache? Be careful, or that could be just the beginning of bigger health issues that are being tied to out-of-control debt problems.

Two studies published earlier this year explored the relationship between debt and physical and mental ailments, and found some strong associations between the two.

The first study was done by researchers at the University of Southampton and Kingston University in the United Kingdom. They reviewed previous studies that showed a connection between health problems and debt, compiled data on 34,000 participants from all the studies and concluded that people in debt were more than three times more likely to have a mental health problem than those who were not in debt.

Fewer than 9 percent of those in the study with no mental health problems were in debt, compared to more than 25 percent of participants who were in debt and had a mental health problem. The study results also show that those in debt are more likely to suffer from depression, drug dependence, and psychosis. In addition, the results suggest that people who commit suicide are more likely to be in debt.

Which Came First, the Debt or the Disease?

The study can't determine, however, whether the debt problems helped give rise to the mental health issues or if the mental health problems led to the financial woes.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that debt problems among young adults are associated with higher levels of stress and depression, and even higher blood pressure. The researchers point out that the associations between debt and health problems remained significant, even when they controlled for prior socioeconomic status, physical and mental health issues and other demographic factors.

The Northwestern study involved 8,400 adults between the ages of 24 and 32 and found that those with higher levels of debt had an 11.7 percent increase in perceived stress, 13.2 percent increase in depressive symptoms, and clinically significant 1.3 percent increase in diastolic blood pressure. Higher blood pressure is linked to greater risks of hypertension and stroke.

Debt Reduction Strategies

If you're concerned about your health issues, you should consult a health care professional; but if you want to reduce your stress about money problems, you can tackle your debt on your own or with the help of a credit counselor. You can find a nonprofit credit counselor in your area through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling if you want professional advice on budgeting and to see if you need a debt management program to handle your bills.

You can also start tackling your debt on your own with the "snowball plan," which is recommended by personal finance expert Dave Ramsey among many others. Start by making a list of all your debts (not including your mortgage), including the minimum payments and the interest rates for each. Then develop a budget to determine the maximum amount you can devote each month to debt reduction. Tackle the lowest balance first, paying the minimum on all other debts and directing everything else you can manage to that one debt until it's gone. Then pay off your second lowest balance in the same way until you've eliminated them all.

Some other debt pay-down methods espoused by experts like Jean Chatzky advise people to concentrate their fiscal firepower on the debt with the highest interest rate first, but Ramsey says the psychological boost of completely eliminating that first balance quickly, and then others in relatively rapid succession, helps people stick to the plan.

Whichever method you choose, what matters most is that you stick to the plan and don't take on new debt.

Michele Lerner is a Motley Fool contributing writer.

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Debt can really stress you out. Your Debt reduction strategies is very helpful especially those who needs to pay down their debts and have a budget when it comes to buying things. The way to financial freedom is to first pay your business loans, personal loans, or any other loans you may have.

February 25 2014 at 11:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm a new addict in paying off most of my credit card balance each month. Ignore the minimum payment of $15 and pay $550.00 or more per month.

December 03 2013 at 8:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Democrats don't care, they just sceerew everyone.

December 03 2013 at 4:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Kudos to the author for using the term "association" instead of "cause" in the article. Both studies noted here used correlational analysis so no "cause-effect" relationship between finances and health could be demonstrated. On the other hand, a sufficient number of studies addressing the relationship between stress and health have been conducted over the past 80 or so years to suggest a very robust relationship. One of the earlier forays into the subject was by Hans Selye (the father of stress research) in 1936. His General Adaptation Syndrome suggests that major catastrophic events are less harmful than smaller, insidious stressors. The ongoing challenge of fulfilling financial obligations would certainly fall into this category. Some of you might be interested in another study that holds particular implications for your health (Adler, N.E., et al (1994). Socioeconomic status and health: the challenge of the gradient; American Psychologist, 49 (1), 15-24). Among the psychological characteristics noted to contribute to morbidity and mortality was Hostility—Clinical definition: disposition reflecting anger proneness; a cynical, distrusting view of others; and antagonistic behavior. I mention this because I read a lot of hate on these pages and would like to warn the contributors that they rage at the peril of their own health.

December 03 2013 at 11:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You either pay your bills or you don't. Either way, I don't see how mental illness plays into this. If you don't have the money, they can't wring water out of a rock. Have a place to live, clothing to cover yourself, food and heat if you live where it's cold, then work on your debt. Chances are you already paid for the crap you bought years ago and all they're doing is squeezing the interest out of you.

December 03 2013 at 11:53 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

My bills are not even near as stressful as to what the government is trying to do and get away with! 2014 cannot come too soon!

December 03 2013 at 10:32 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Well, this advice is all well and good, that is, for those who have a job and income and never had a setback of any kind financially.

December 03 2013 at 9:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

UGH,,,,,UGH.......Got a idea......If you do not like your job or the wages you now earn........QUIT,,,,,,,start your own company and pay yourself what you think you are worth.!!!!!

December 02 2013 at 9:09 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

How much of an education did it take to figure out that debt is bad for your physical/mental/emotional health?

December 02 2013 at 3:32 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Smashcopywriting's comment

The real study would be why people continue to put themselves in that position by spending money they dont have. Thats an interesting question.

December 02 2013 at 5:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to baldbiker2's comment

I have the answer,,,,The Democrates said,,,,you deserve it.!!!!!

But,,,do not work for it,,,just protest for it,,,,,,

December 02 2013 at 8:05 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down

Of course bills can drive a person crazy and make them sick...but that ain't never stopped anyone from sending someone a bill...

December 02 2013 at 3:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to pllove49's comment

And apparently it doesnt stop people from spending money they dont have.

December 02 2013 at 5:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply