How money affects your mental health
How money affects your mental health

How Money Affects Your Mental Health and How to Help It

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For some people, stability is the norm. They’re successful, happy and blissfully unaware of just how lucky they are to be in such a comfortable position.

For the rest of us, chaos is the status quo.

Financial and mental instability are common issues, and they often go hand in hand. In fact, the two tend to exacerbate each other, leading to a downward spiral that just gets worse over time – unless you do something about it. Unfortunately, that can be easier said than done.

In 2018, addressing financial and mental health issues has never been more important. Here’s what we know about the connection, and what you can do to address it.

How Debt Affects Your Mental Health

One of the biggest sources of mental health strain is debt. People who have mental health problems are more likely to be in debt, and people who commit suicide are eight times more likely to have debt. Depression, anxiety and psychotic disorders are the most common mental health symptoms associated with debt, and substance abuse risk is also increased.

A study published in Psychological Medicine said that consumers having trouble paying their rent or mortgage experience the same distress as someone going through a divorce or job loss. With so many people living paycheck to paycheck, that’s a significant portion of the population.

In 2017, the American Psychological Association released their annual “Stress in America” survey. Money came in second place, and 62% of people surveyed said it was a very or somewhat significant source of stress.

Stress Affects Your Spending

Mental health problems can also exacerbate financial issues creating a “chicken or the egg” scenario. People with mental health disorders may be more prone to making irresponsible money decisions, like overspending or ignoring late bills.

For example, someone suffering from anxiety may decide that dealing with defaulted student loans is too stressful, so it’s better to avoid the issue entirely. Someone in the throes of depression could go on a shopping spree in search of a temporary dopamine spike, only to fall further into depression when the credit card bill comes due.

Debt can also impair your ability to get help for mental health issues, especially if you don’t have health insurance or can’t afford to pay your deductible. A person with clinical depression who can’t afford medication may continue to struggle, even if their problem could be reduced with medication.

The point is, money and mental health are intrinsically linked. Writer and blogger Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt paid off $81,000 in student loans in nine years and said that her depression and anxiety had never been worse than when she was in debt and only making $10 an hour.

“When I paid off my debt, I felt like the mental shackles were off and I felt freer,” Lockert said.

These days, Lockert writes about debt and personal finance. She says many people find her blog because of her posts about mental health. It’s not uncommon for someone to Google “I want to kill myself because of debt” and find Lockert’s blog. Many of these readers feel like they’ll never get out of debt, so there’s no point in trying. She reminds them that debt is a manageable problem, and everyone has the tools to rise above it.

I can relate to Lockert and her readers. When I had $24,000 of student loans and was making $28,000 a year, I constantly thought about money. Any time I bought a $1 Snickers bar at the vending machine or rented a Redbox movie, I worried I was wasting money. I would go crazy debating brand name vs. generic, even if it only saved me 50 cents. I often bought things and returned them later.

Not only did my debt increase the anxiety I was dealing with, but it also prevented me from doing anything about it. I felt like I couldn’t afford to see a therapist, buy a gym membership or indulge in my hobbies. I didn’t want to go out with my friends, because it meant spending money at bars and restaurants. I sat at home and constantly looked at my budget, wondering when I’d get out of debt.

When I eventually started going to therapy, I often felt guilty for spending money on my mental health instead of my student loans. Even now that I’m debt free, I still struggle with how much I spend on personal wellness.

Where to Find Money and Mental Health Help

One of the reasons that money can affect our collective mental health is because it’s still such a taboo topic. According to a 2014 Wells Fargo survey, personal finance is the most difficult conversation people can have, ahead of death, politics, religion, taxes and personal health. If people struggling with debt and mental health can’t even talk about these problems with their loved ones, where can they go?

First, they can talk to a low-cost counselor. Many insurance plans subsidize therapy and you can often find an affordable therapist through a college psychology program. I’ve used several of these programs and only paid $15 for weekly sessions. The therapists were always graduate or Ph.D. students who were being supervised by a professional counselor.

Many employers also provide counseling, both financial and personal, as a company benefit. Ask your HR rep if this is available. If you find a therapist, ask them if they offer services on a sliding scale.

If you feel overwhelmed at the thought of fixing your finances on your own, call the United Way for a list of local non-profits that may offer basic financial counseling. They might be able to help you apply for student loan forgiveness or convince your creditors to give you a grace period.

Overall, the best way to approach mental health and financial issues is the same – tackle them head-on. Ask your utility company for an extension, call your doctor for a therapist referral or ask a friend if they have any suggestions. Once you start addressing them, your problems will only get better.

Zina Kumok
Zina Kumok

Written by Zina Kumok

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A former reporter, she has covered murder trials, the Final Four and everything in between. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. Read about how she paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Conscious Coins. More from Zina Kumok