Man kills wife over unpaid healthcare bills

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published May 15, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • A 76-year-old man in Missouri confessed to strangling his wife over medical bills.

  • Extreme stress from medical debt and caregiving can lead to aggressive behavior, especially in those with mental health issues.

Last week, a 76-year-old man in Missouri confessed to strangling his wife. The reason: He couldn't afford her healthcare bills. At approximately 8:30 pm on May 3, a “Code Blue” was called on the victim—she was found unresponsive in her hospital room with no pulse, according to court documents. Medical staff overheard Ronnie Wiggs declare, “I did it, I killed her, I choked her.” Wiggs later admitted he was depressed and felt he could no longer take care of his wife. 

Aggressive reactions to mounting medical bills are rare and extreme—and Wiggs’ actions may have been fueled by a personality disorder or untreated mood disorder, some mental health experts suspect. Still, his behavior highlights how medical bills can negatively affect people’s mental health—and sometimes elicit an overly aggressive response. 

“It is important to recognize that more than any specific mental health condition, the sense of hopelessness, despair, severe burnout, and helplessness may be unbearable and thus individuals who react in extreme ways often do not feel they have any other options or alternatives,” Kristin Papa, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Living Openhearted, told MDLinx. Wiggs’s reaction is a reminder of how important it is to check in and provide support to family members and caregivers of those with chronic illness, she adds.

How medical debt can impact people’s mental health

Rachel Goldberg, LMFT, MS, a psychotherapist based in Los Angeles, says medical bills are known to have a profound impact on people’s mental health. A survey found that 74% of people with medical debt say it negatively affected their lives and 26% believe it hurt their mental health. Existing data support their claims: Medical debt has been linked to higher rates of mortality due to cancer, heart disease, and suicide, according to a report from the American Cancer Society. Additionally, “research indicates that financial stressors, including medical debt, can worsen existing mental health conditions or even trigger new ones,” Goldberg says.[] 

Being unable to pay medical bills can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. “Both medical conditions and financial stress can lead to feelings of uncertainty or like you have little control, which, for many people, can be difficult to cope with and negatively impact their well-being,” Papa said.[]

Navigating the healthcare system can be frustrating and time-consuming: Many people have multiple doctors they need to coordinate with and have to jump through hoops with insurers to ensure their care is covered. Claims may be denied, for example, and people may spend hours appealing and re-submitting documentation to health insurance companies to get their care covered. “It often can turn into a full-time job since it can be tedious and very time-consuming,” Papa says.

On top of that, the unclear costs of diagnostic tests and procedures and surprise medical bills can be overwhelming, according to Goldberg. “In cases of serious medical issues, families may face difficult choices between medical expenses and essential needs like food or housing,” she said.[] 

Caregiving for loved ones leads to a deterioration in one’s physical and mental health, research shows. “Being a caregiver for someone who has a progressive condition can be very difficult since you’re often confronting the continued deterioration of the patient’s physical condition as well as navigating possible medical emergencies and crises,” Papa said. Some people may wind up neglecting their own physical and mental health. As a result, family caregivers are seen as a “second victim” and often suffer from anxiety and depression.[] 

Other factors may contribute to poor mental health and violent reactions 

Of course, in many cases, additional factors, such as other financial stressors, chronic health conditions, and an inability to work, can further impair people’s mental health. A report recently found that relieving a person’s medical debt doesn’t necessarily lead to an improvement in their mental health. “This underscores the complexity of the situation, where various factors may intersect, contributing to the onset or exacerbation of mental health issues,” Goldberg says.[]

While it’s unclear what motivated Wiggs to kill his wife, multiple factors may have triggered him to become violent. Combined with poverty, substance use, and a history of childhood abuse, untreated mental health disorders, such as severe major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and psychosis, may play a role in violent behaviors. Some studies have found that those diagnosed with mental disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, face an increased risk of committing aggressive acts. (It’s worth noting that the majority of violent acts are not due to mental illness, the American Psychological Association states.)[][]

Steps to take for those overwhelmed by their medical bills 

This tragic event highlights the importance of checking in and providing support to those caring for someone with chronic illness. “Many hospitals and healthcare systems focus only on the ‘identified patient,’’’ Papa says, “however, providing emotional support and services to their family members and caregivers can possibly connect them with resources to cope with the very overwhelming situation.”[]

Goldberg recommends getting therapy to process how the debt is affecting their well-being and learn coping strategies to manage the build-up of stress. Participating in caregiver support groups can also help people share information about how to advocate for their loved ones and deal with medical debt, Papa says. 

Some insurance providers offer care coordinates to help people navigate their diagnosis and treatment options. Furthermore, there are many charities and advocacy organizations that offer relief from medical debt. But, as Goldberg points out, this can, unfortunately, give the caregiver more work to do and intensify their burden: “The issue, of course, is that all this requires more work on the part of the caregiver, which once again speaks to the broken nature of our healthcare system,” Goldberg said.

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