The hidden mental toll of overwhelming debt: How a payday loan spiral almost ended in disaster

Sean Reaume can tell you a lot about debt anxiety.

At age 18, Reaume realized he had an option to get more money quickly: He could borrow from a payday lender. At the same time, he found out he was eligible for a $ 500 credit card through his bank — which he says he overspent, taking “years” to pay the money back.

When Reaume got a higher-paying job around three years ago, he realized he could get a larger loan than he’d ever taken out before — so he went to a payday lender and was approved for $ 2,700. Reaume worked to pay the amount off, but was laid off from his job for about five months, losing his ability to make payments.

The lender ended up taking him to court, later garnishing his wages in order to recoup the money.

“The anxiety started there and it kind of spiralled. It made it worse,” Reaume says.

Indeed, Reaume acknowledges that he didn’t believe that anxiety could affect him so seriously until about three years ago, when his debt caught up and caused him “too many problems” in his life and relationships.

Reaume says he found himself drinking more than normal as his situation snowballed. As the collection calls began to mount, he struggled to keep his situation secret from his partner.

“I got into terrible habits,” Reaume, who is now 27, says. “I (was) receiving calls constantly and it’s like, what do I do? I know I need to pay these things. I (didn’t) know what the repercussions necessarily are.”

Reaume isn’t alone. A survey conducted in September showed 40 per cent of Canadians do not expect to escape debt in their lifetime — with 67 per cent of respondents assuming everyone else was carrying debt as they were.

And while much has been written about the financial effect overwhelming debt can have, new research is emerging showing it takes a serious toll on mental health as well.

Dr. Hayley Hamilton, Senior Scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, says that general research has shown an association “between the stress individuals experience as a result of being in debt and mental health problems.”

A recent study co-authored by Hamilton found an association between debt and those who reported high to moderate psychological distress, poor or fair mental health and poor to fair physical health.

The CAMH study asked 8,045 adults in Ontario to self-rate their health levels in each area with a screening tool. What is particularly interesting about the study, Hamilton says, is that stress experienced is often subjective.

“This subjective financial stress is often more important than the level of debt itself,” Hamilton says. “You and I might owe the same amount, but I’m really stressed about it.”

“Some research suggests that this (feeling of stress) might be more important than the actual amount of debt that you owe.”

Doug Hoyes, co-founder of Hoyes Michalos and Associates, a licensed insolvency trustee that helps borrowers recover from serious debt problems, says that situations such as these are all too-common among his clients.

Reminding people that they are not going through debt alone is among the first things he tells new clients. “Pretty much everybody we deal with is experiencing some kind of stress as a result of (debt). It’s just kind of par for the course for what we’re dealing with,” he says.

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Hoyes advises his clients not to compare themselves to people they see living large on social media, as that’s not a complete picture. “They only post a picture of that great vacation,” Hoyes says. “They don’t post the picture of the credit card statement after the vacation is over.”

Much of the anxiety caused by debt comes from being thrown into a new situation, such as a divorce, illness or losing your job, Hoyes says.

When life takes a turn that is different one expects, it “makes it very stressful,” Hoyes says. “It’s not the debt that causes the stress. It’s the inability to service the debt that causes the stress.”

If someone has “a $ 10 million house and a $ 1 million mortgage, it’s no big deal,” Hoyes says. “But if I have a credit card with a couple of thousand bucks owing on it and I’m not sure I can make the minimum payment this month, that’s hugely stressful.”

According to Hoyes, the mental strain of dealing with debt can be minimized by getting professional help and putting together a realistic plan to pay it down.

But you have to look closely at the people you work with, Hoyes warns. “Debt consultants” may ask for money up front — something Hoyes says is a red flag. Licensed insolvency trustees are not allowed to ask for payment up front, settling with clients after paperwork is filed.

He also advises that you ask for qualifications and ask questions about the process before getting into an agreement with a debt consultant. “If you ask a few questions, it (should be) obvious whether you’re dealing with someone who’s legit or not.”

For his part, Reaume says he started the process of getting out of debt two years ago with some help from his family. Now he’s working hard to repair his credit and has some hard-won advice on how to avoid getting in trouble to begin with.

He says it was incredibly easy for him to “get a loan from every (lender) around” as soon as he turned 18, at the time working what he describes as “a mediocre job.”

“It enables you to just go crazy with it,” Reaume says.

“Don’t get a loan from these places,” Reaume warns, referring to payday lenders. “Work harder on trying to work out things with your bank … even if you fail on those loans, it’s a lot better for your credit in the end.”

Jenna Moon

TORONTO STAR