Posted: 07 October 2016

Family debt and children: popping the weasel

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,                                                                    
Half a pound of treacle,                                                                            
That’s the way the money goes,                                                             
Pop! goes the weasel.                                                                               

(Pop Goes the Weasel – 19th Century nursery rhyme)                                                    

Children have long been exposed to the problems of family debt. In the 19th Century, they sang about coats (weasels and stoats) being popped (pawned).  In the Children’s Society’s Breathing Space campaign, they talk about families living on the debt and poverty line. However, despite its historical presence, there is nothing inevitable about today’s situation.   

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Breathing space

Give young people in debt space to breathe

What is happening?

As a psychiatrist, I can’t help but be aware of the impact the current economic climate is having on our families and children – times are very tough for many people. When times get hard, even though parents try to shield their children, everyone in the family will probably need to go without, or be affected in both material and emotional ways.

Without the assistance of a debt advice agency, people can find themselves in a situation where creditors are competing for repayment, shouting ever louder (with multiple calls and letters), or speaking more forcefully (threatening repossession, penalties via the court system, and bailiff visits).   This repeated contact and interaction can create a tense and negative environment and atmosphere in which to live.

We know that for adults, debt problems increase the chances of poor mental health (they are twice as likely to develop major depression as patients without debt2)and the more debt a person has, the more likely they are to develop a mental health problem3.  We also know that one in two British adults with a debt problem also have a mental health problem4. This can all make recovering from a mental health problem or financial hardship that much harder. There is a relationship between debt and other issues including suicide6, poor physical health7, fuel poverty8, and alcohol and drug dependence5.

Living in such a situation can lead to an unsustainable economic pressure building within the family.  Research has shown that parental depression levels can rise, marital or partner conflict can occur, and also confrontation between parents and children. In such circumstances, the development of depression and anxiety among children can grow, with lower levels of wellbeing and mental health occurring. This does not happen in every family, nor will it happen in the same way every time, but this theme of building pressure and conflict is a common one1.

So what can be done about it?

In general terms, people with families in debt firstly need to recognise that it is not too late to make things better – even if it feels that way.   They should know that there are lots of people and organisations who will help them, not judge them. On the debt side, these include StepChange (0800 138 1111), National Debt Line (0808 808 4000), or another free advice agency.   The Samaritans (116 123) are of course available to help anyone in emotional distress, and your GP will be able to advise on any health matters.

Mental health workers need to be aware of the impact of debt on mental health, and that families in these situations need emotional and material support to stop the debt spiralling. To be able to tackle this problem on a national scale we are going to have to approach it from both sides. We need to expand our services for children with mental health concerns so they get support before it turns into a full blown crisis, and we must help families who find themselves falling into debt.

Unless we do this, more of our children may end up living the weasel words of 19th Century nursery rhymes, rather than singing them in safe, warm, and healthy family environments.

References

1 Conger RD, Conger KJ, Elder GH Jr. Lorenz FO, Simons RL, Whitbeck L. A family process model of economic hardship and adjustment of early adolescent boys. Child Dev 1992; 63: 526-541. ¯

2 Skapinakis P, Weich S, Lewis G, et al. Socio-economic position and common mental disorders: Longitudinal study in the general population in the UK. Br J Psychiatry 2006; 189:109-17.

3 Fitch C, Hamilton S, Bassett P, et al.The relationship between personal debt and mental health: A systematic review. Mental Health Review Journal 2011; 16, 4:153-166.

4 Jenkins R, Bhugra D, Bebbington P, et al. Debt, income and mental disorder in the general population. Psychol Med 2008; 38: 1485-1494.

5 Jenkins R, Bhugra D, Bebbington P, et al. Mental disorder in people with debt in the general population. J of Pub Health Medicine 2009; 6: 88-92.

6 Meltzer H, Bebbington P, Brugha TJ, et al. Personal debt and suicidal ideation. Psycholog Medicine 2011; 41: 771–778.

7 Richardson T, Elliott P, Roberts R. The relationship between personal unsecured debt and mental and physical health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinic Psychology Review 2013; 33: 1148-1162.

8 Thomson H, Thomas S, Sellstrom E, Petticrew M. Housing improvements for health and associated socio-economic outcomes. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013; Issue 2. Art. No.: CD008657.

 

 

 

 

By Dr Jed Boardman
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