Money and mental health

How Can You Get Financially Secure if You’re Depressed?

"My mental health issues made it harder to manage my finances. My financial problems worsened my mental health. Rinse, repeat."

How are you supposed to get your money right when you’re too depressed to check your balance?

That’s what I found myself asking last summer when a bad mental health month coincided with some unexpected expenses.

In those days, I would get home from my ten-hour-a-day job, crash on the couch, and cry. Sometimes I would cry about money—my compounding student loan, my $200 phone repair bill. Mostly, I cried because I couldn’t do anything else, as depression sapped my energy.

On my days off, I spent long hours laying in bed. When I did feel up to going out, I would try to make the most of it by treating myself to a nice meal or new outfit—only to wake up with a higher credit card bill and the same old problems. By the end of the summer, my savings were depleted and I was absolutely miserable.

I was caught in a vicious cycle. My mental health issues made it harder to manage my finances. My financial problems worsened my mental health. Rinse, repeat.

This catch-22 is not uncommon, says Haley Neidich, LCSW. “When you're having a hard time, the effort and energy that it can take to even sit down and look at your finances can be unbearable.” As patients struggle with depression and anxiety, “stacks of unopened mail” pile up on their desks because they can’t bear to open their bills.

How finances impact your mental health

The link between mental health and financial health isn’t just anecdotal—it’s well-established in the academic literature. “From the point of view of mental health disorders, one of the most replicated observations is the very high association between financial security and mental health,” explains Dr. Roger McIntyre, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. In other words, money can sometimes buy happiness.

Money problems, on the other hand, are associated with a variety of poor mental health outcomes. According to the UK Money and Mental Health Institute, people with mental health problems are nearly three and a half times more likely to have problem debt. A paper in Clinical Psychology Review linked financial strain to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Studies of previous financial crises show that spikes in unemployment coincide with a decline in mental well-being. As millions find themselves without a job due to the COVID-19 crisis, researchers warn that without significant government intervention, there could be thousands of excess deaths by suicide.

"According to the UK Money and Mental Health Institute, people with mental health problems are nearly three and a half times more likely to have problem debt."

The link between mental health problems and financial insecurity does not exist in a vacuum—it exists under capitalism. “If you were a cave person without a cave, you’d probably feel threatened. In our society, you need currency to be able to protect yourself,” says Dr. McIntyre.

In a capitalistic society, financial security is a literal term. People without an emergency fund face the possibility of losing access to food, shelter, and healthcare. Over time, the stress that results from not having that security takes its toll on mental health.

This stress can also manifest differently in women than in men. Because women are more likely to have a history of trauma, stressors like financial hardship have a higher chance of triggering PTSD in adult life. People of color can also process financial stress differently. During the Great Recession, Black Americans were more distressed by unemployment than whites, as the competitive job market highlighted racial discrimination in the hiring process. The economic inequalities between racial groups—and the psychological consequences they’ve wrought—have persisted over centuries and many are currently being further amplified.

There’s no doubt that social and economic factors play a part in the vicious cycle of mental illness and money problems. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do if you’re struggling. If you find yourself struggling to get your finances straight because your mental health is a struggle, there are steps you can take to find your way.

Finding financial security for people with mental health issues

While there is a link between poor mental health and money problems, “a person with a mental health condition is absolutely not doomed to financial insecurity,” says Neidich. If you’re struggling with your mental health, there are steps you can take to get your finances in check.

Ask for help

As Neidich explains, ”sometimes saying out loud that you're struggling to manage your money can be a powerful way to initiate change.” Find someone you trust and tell them what you’re going through. This person can be your ally, helping you through the transitions you’re making.

Use an app to check all your accounts in one place

Use a financial management app like Mint to get all your accounts together. By putting your checking account, savings account, student loan, and credit card bill in one convenient place, you’re less likely to ignore any one of them.

Make a money management routine

Once you’ve got your money in one place, set a routine. Neidich suggests three financial check-ups per week for a month. Hint: if you need extra support, bring in that trusted person for a financial friend-date.

Explore low-cost treatment options

Nobody should have to forgo mental health treatment because of the cost, but unfortunately, many people do.

According to the 2008 mental health parity law, all insurance companies in the US are required to cover mental health services. Still, there are barriers to accessing that coverage, like high deductibles and a lack of in-network providers. Plus, none of this applies to people without insurance.

There are other options for affordable treatment. Many therapists offer sliding-scale prices for people with lower incomes. Teleproviders like Talkspace, while imperfect, tend to be more affordable than in-person treatment. There are also platforms and apps designed to support marginalized communities. Finally, check with local government offices, charities, and community centers. Many offer mental health treatment.

Prepare to be upset

Fear, self-judgment, and shame are all common when dealing with financial problems. “Be kind and gentle with [yourself],” says Neidich. These feelings come with change, no matter how healthy, important, or even necessary.

A light at the end of the tunnel

Things have changed a lot since the summer I spent stuck in a financial and emotional hole. After my family let me know they were worried about me, I started seeing a therapist. She gave me the tools I needed to break the cycle of shame and avoidance. Eventually, I gathered the strength to make a much-needed career change that paid better and stressed me out less.

I ended up in a different kind of cycle—a virtuous one. The more financially secure I felt, the more I invested in my well-being. The better I felt, the better decisions I made, for my mental health and my wallet.

The society we live in complicates this narrative. A person’s productivity shouldn’t determine their survival, and we need to address the structural problems that link the two. But for people living with mental illness or other mental health struggles who want to improve their financial situation right now, there is a way forward. Be kind to yourself, ask for help, and take it one step at a time.

If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and are in need of immediate support, you can call the NAMI HelpLine, 1-800-950-6264.

Ciara McLaren

Ciara McLaren is a freelance writer based in the southwest of France. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, Ours to Save, and Gastronomica.

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