Debt stress affects health, fuels depression

Canadians coping with the financial stress of heavy debt are increasingly talking about suicide as they struggle with sleepless nights and high blood pressure, a psychologist says.

Researchers document health effects of indebtedness

Tanya Zerr of Airdrie, Alta., recalls the tears of hopelessness when she and her husband faced credit card debt after he lost his job. (CBC)

Canadians coping with the financial stress of heavy debt are increasingly talking about suicide, a psychologist says, as they struggle with sleepless nights and high blood pressure.

Dr. Donna Ferguson is a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Over her 12 years there, Ferguson has encountered more people aged 40 to 64 who are overwhelmed with the financial stress of being on disability, a single parent or heavily in debt.

"I think it's really knowing and hearing about how people are now more depressed and more anxious about it, that suicide is a thought," Ferguson said. "Now, it's becoming more noticeable."

Researchers have also documented the health effects of indebtedness. A review by Finnish researchers last year of 33-peer reviewed studies concluded "indebtedness has serious effects on health."

"Individuals with unmet loan payments had suicidal ideation and suffered from depression more often than those without such financial problems."

Researchers from Montreal and Chicago also published a study reporting that high financial debt relative to available assets is associated with higher perceived stress and depression, worse self-reported general health and higher diastolic blood pressure among young adults across the U.S.

Tears and sleepless nights

Tanya Zerr, 38, of Airdrie, Alta., recalls the sense of hopelessness when she and her husband, Marty Zerr, faced $15,000 in credit card debt after he lost his job as a labourer in the oil and gas industry in 2008.

"I would cry," Zerr said. "The thing is, it is not something you really talk about. I couldn't call my friends and say, 'Oh my goodness, I am so worried about this'.… You keep a lot of that in."

"It was sleepless nights, a nervous feeling all the time because you're just worried, Am I going to get that letter, that eviction letter saying we're going to cancel your mortgage? It's kind of living in fear, because you just don't know what is going to be taken away from you."

Zerr said stress caused her to eat more and put on weight, while her husband wouldn't eat and lost weight.

At Consolidated Credit Counselling Services of Canada, Jeff Schwartz helps a wide range of people in Toronto, including professionals and those who receive government supports. Many say they're stressed and feel at the end of their rope.

"It's almost like it's a black cloud following them around, and they are not themselves so they can't function properly as they would. There is a lot of sleeplessness, there is lethargy, there is hopelessness that manifests itself within their job, within how they function in their daily lives," Schwartz said.

"At the end, it's almost as if there's been some relief and that cloud is no longer there."

It took Zerr four years to clear her credit card debt through the credit counselling service. For three years, her husband earned five dollars less an hour in a cooking job, then returned to the oil and gas industry, only to be laid off again in January. She's relieved the monthly bills are no longer so high.

Zerr has torn up the Visa, Brick and Bay cards in favour of prepaid credit cards when needed.