Help friends open up about debt — you owe it to them

Financial problems can bring dire consequences, so don’t wait until it’s too late

Illustration by Gary Clement
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You’ve suspected it for a while, but it’s embarrassing to talk about and you know that once you broach the subject, things will never be the same. But you’re very concerned and you know that in extreme cases, it can lead to ruin, or worse.

When you suspect someone is in debt and sinking with the struggle, probably mentally as well as financially, it is difficult to know what to do.

A problem shared is often a problem halved.

There is no way of knowing how a person will react if you bring it up directly. They could break down or get defensive. It could be the biggest relief to stop pretending and hiding, or so mortifying and shaming that the person is indignant.

Denial is a very likely reaction, especially if you ‘out’ them early on. It is how people end up stockpiling tens of thousands of dirhams worth of debt, because it “isn’t a problem” and they can “manage it”.

A medical friend tells me patients are quick to talk about stressors around family and work — but not finance. It is still a no-go zone. Looking at the stats though, chances are most of her patients are squeezed — three out of five are struggling with debt in the UAE, according to a YouGov report out at the end of last year. The survey found that 33 per cent of respondents have credit card debt and a further 39 per cent don’t see their debt reducing, despite making regular payments.

More worryingly I believe is that the survey, involving over 1,000 people, found that one in three were unaware of the total amount that they owe. This is a classic sign of denial.

One can ignore reality up to a point. Then stress and fear hit hard as the severity of the situation sinks in. This is probably when my doctor friend ends up seeing them — when financial worries manifest as physical symptoms. After that comes panic, with anger and depression thrown in to the mix.

According to Money And Mental Health, a charity based in the UK, more than 100,000 people in problem debt consider suicide in England each year. Fewer than one in five people will seek help with their debt problems.

To be clear: plenty of people manage their debt. But for those who struggle, it can quickly spiral out of control. It is usually a mix of several situations — some can be seemingly small and run-of-the-mill, such as an emergency expense, while others can be more significant like losing a job or discovering a baby is on the way.

So how can we help? Talk to them. Get a conversation around debt, stress and fear started. If you believe you’ll be met with resistance, try framing it as a general topic of discussion. Perhaps refer to the YouGov survey or discuss a ‘friend’ of yours who is in debt and whom you’re concerned about. Sometimes getting the conversation going is enough for people to open up.

There are plenty of blogs and websites that deal with debt issues and offer both practical guidance and peer-to-peer support. Use these resources and encourage your friend to do the same. Knowing that they are not alone, that you care and that there can be a way out is key.

And yes, people do kill themselves over debt. It is often not the amount of money, but the way they feel and are made to feel through debt-threat, shame and fear. They think they cannot talk to anyone about their feelings and are unable to see a way out.

The only way to find out what is going on with your friend is to ‘go there’. A problem shared is often a problem halved. Simply hearing the sound of their own voice saying things like “I’m in debt. I’m worried. I need help sorting this out” is enough to bring about a huge internal shift towards a way out and a better life. You would do that for your friend, wouldn’t you?

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on