In the UK, 8.8 million people are burdened by serious debt problems, but only 1.5 million have sought debt advice, according to the Money Advice Service (MAS).
Its report, “Indebted Lives: The Complexities of Life in Debt”, surveyed 5,000 adults in a bid to understand the struggles of living with debt.
The study revealed how in excess of four million people in this indebted group have had difficulty paying their bills for more than a year.
Nearly half (48%) admitted their debts prevented them from buying the basics – for families this number increased to 54%.
According to the report, which sets out eight distinct groups of people in serious debt, families make up 65% of the 8.8 million in debt and account for four out of the eight groups.
Caroline Rookes, chief executive of the Money Advice Service, said: “This study presents us with a fundamental challenge: the majority of people with debt difficulties do not seek advice.”
The MAS found that 17% of adults experiencing debt problems have asked for advice for assistance.
But 21% of over-indebted people have not recognised they are in debt.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “It’s really important that people get debt advice early, but as this research shows, there are often barriers in doing so.”
The MAS discovered that knowledge, skills and attitudes are some of the reasons that prevent people from accessing advice.
Some 40% admitted that “they don’t feel able to talk to their creditors about their debt problem”.
The survey showed cities in the north of England and Northern Ireland have the greatest number of people struggling with debt.
More than 40% of the total local adult population struggle with debt in the top five over-indebted areas, which are Kingston-upon-Hull (43.1%), Nottingham (41.2%), Manchester (41.1%), Knowsley (40.7%) and Liverpool (40.6%).
Rookes added: “Millions of people could escape their spiral of debt by accessing free advice. We know it transforms lives and the sooner people access it the better.
“So now, armed with greater insights, we will work with advice agencies, creditors and public bodies to help as many people as possible access free, high quality debt advice.”