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Researchers and politicians have regularly expressed their worries about a widening of socioeconomic inequalities in physical and mental health. Debts have been relatively understudied as a specific aspect of socioeconomic disadvantage contributing to poor mental health. This study examines the bidirectional association between debts and common mental disorders (CMDs) in the adult population of the Netherlands. Data were obtained from the second ('baseline') and third (3-year follow-up) wave of the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study-2, a representative cohort of adults. Questions were asked about debts and difficulty in repaying debts in the past 12 months. The answers were combined into one variable: no debts, easy, difficult, and very difficult to pay back debts. Twelve-month CMDs were assessed with the Composite International Diagnostic Interview version 3.0. Increasing levels of difficulty in repaying debts predicted onset of CMD at follow-up in those without 12-month CMD at baseline, and persistence of CMD at follow-up in those with 12-month CMD at baseline. Conversely, CMD was not linked to onset of debts at follow-up in those without 12-month debts at baseline, but was associated with persistence of difficulty to pay back debts at follow-up in those with 12-month debts at baseline. These associations remained significant after adjustment for baseline sociodemographic variables, negative life events and physical health. Health professionals and debt counsellors should pay more attention to patients' debts and clients' mental health respectively in order to refer those with financial or mental health problems to the appropriate services.