Background The association between poor mental health and poverty is well known but its mechanism is not fully understood. This study tests the hypothesis that the association between low income and mental disorder is mediated by debt and its attendant financial hardship.\ud \ud Method The study is a cross-sectional nationally representative survey of private households in England, Scotland and Wales, which assessed 8580 participants aged 16–74 years living in general households. Psychosis, neurosis, alcohol abuse and drug abuse were identified by the Clinical Interview Schedule – Revised, the Schedule for Assessment in Neuropsychiatry (SCAN), the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) and other measures. Detailed questions were asked about income, debt and financial hardship.\ud \ud Results Those with low income were more likely to have mental disorder [odds ratio (OR) 2.09, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.68–2.59] but this relationship was attenuated after adjustment for debt (OR 1.58, 95% CI 1.25–1.97) and vanished when other sociodemographic variables were also controlled (OR 1.07, 95% CI 0.77–1.48). Of those with mental disorder, 23% were in debt (compared with 8% of those without disorder), and 10% had had a utility disconnected (compared with 3%). The more debts people had, the more likely they were to have some form of mental disorder, even after adjustment for income and other sociodemographic variables. People with six or more separate debts had a six-fold increase in mental disorder after adjustment for income (OR 6.0, 95% CI 3.5–10.3).\ud \ud Conclusions Both low income and debt are associated with mental illness, but the effect of income appears to be mediated largely by debt
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