Financial Literacy

Money often gets in the way of mental health for many of us

By: Larissa Fleurette Ho on January 30, 2019

As someone who was diagnosed with a mental illness at a young age, I understand the rollercoaster it can be. I’ve done the whole trial-and-error process to find a medication that works for me, sat through hours of counselling, and met others with mental illness, whether it was bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, an eating disorder, or debilitating anxiety.

I’ve grown to learn how to handle setbacks and difficult days, as well as manage so I don’t slip into a full-blown crisis (as I have in the past). We all cope in different ways. Learning how you best cope, and recognizing signs in yourself that you may be slipping into an episode, are important.

When I reached my mid-twenties, however, I came across a new mental stressor — finances.

I finished my bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto and then went to Vancouver to complete a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. It was expensive. I wasn’t prepared — financially and mentally — for the burden of living in Vancouver, attending school full-time, and flying back home occasionally to Toronto.

I watched my student debt climb and it filled me with dread. For anyone with mental illness, money woes can worsen your mental health, but we spend so little time talking about how connected the two are.

Finding a job

I went looking for jobs after I graduated from UBC. I had prior experience as a news editor at my campus newspaper and a couple of writer roles under my belt. But even with just a little more experience in communications than the average new graduate, finding a job in my chosen field — writing, editing, communications — was difficult.

In today’s economy, there are fewer and fewer jobs available, especially for new graduates, that are full-time and permanent. This has a detrimental effect on mental health.

Right now, contract jobs are all I can find, so every few months I have to start looking for, applying, and going through the interview process all over again for a new contract.  Not having the stability of a permanent job heightens anxiety and stress. In addition, in contract roles, you’re likely not getting benefits.

For anyone with mental illness, money woes can worsen your mental health, but we spend so little time talking about how connected the two are

For those with mental health issues like me, those benefits help a ton. Medications that are not covered can take a huge toll on you, financially and mentally. I know people who can’t afford their medications, so they don’t take them. As a result, they suffer. They can’t retain their jobs due to the return of often debilitating symptoms. In the worst cases, these people may find themselves back in the hospital, or even, in the streets.

For me right now, on a personal level, I realize that having one contract job after the other to pay for rising student debt and expensive medical bills is not OK. Juggling full-time work with other obligations like going to counselling appointments, having a social life, and finding time to do what refreshes you — like yoga or reading or biking — is a balancing act that few can keep up with in the long-term.

The price we pay

Stable work is key to having stable finances. When finances are stressing someone out, they may feel depressed to the point that their relationships suffer. It can be so very difficult to talk to someone and even admit you’re going through an illness. It is so much worse to admit you’re in debt or need financial assistance because of your mental illness. There’s an extra layer of shame in having a mental illness plus being in debt.

We need to have open discussion about the effect of money on mental health because I have seen firsthand that those with illness — bipolar, depression, schizophrenia, or whatever it is — pay a huge price for their mental struggles. They lose money, opportunities, relationships. They struggle to make ends meet, particularly to pay their medical bills. Often, they forego important medications that they need to take in order to function, so that they can pay other pressing bills. And they lose and struggle silently out of fear of backlash...Because, yes, the stigma is out there, and it’s strong.

Why it’s important to speak up

Being open about how much money affects mental health starts in the workplace — after all, we’re there to make money and to help us provide for ourselves and our families.

I know how it feels. You risk a lot by disclosing such a personal issue that is so often misunderstood and brushed under the carpet — much to the detriment of those who suffer publicly and in silence and for their caregivers. Discrimination in the workplace because of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, bipolar, schizophrenia, or whatever you may be dealing with, is very real. There’s definitely nothing to gain from pretending there aren’t folks out there who just don’t “get it,” or may even have a stubborn attitude rather than an open mind and refuse to further educate themselves on what mental health (and illness) is and does. I know people who still refuse to acknowledge that mental illness is not a personal weakness or character flaw.

Because of self-stigma and the risk of experiencing stigma from others, you know that disclosing your struggles could lead to negative attention, judgment, and loss of respect from colleagues and friends. You could lose opportunities for growth and development. To that I would say, it really hurts you to stay silent. You definitely risk a lot when you disclose personal mental health struggles. But there’s also a possibility that a conversation with your manager or colleague could be really positive and lead to conversations about how to deal with panic attacks before a presentation, or how to cope with a sudden or lingering depressive episode (this is important because episodes of depression are capable of lasting for months at a time), or even just how to make your day-to-day routine at work easier for you to manage.

You risk a lot by disclosing such a personal issue that is so often misunderstood and brushed under the carpet

These conversations are difficult to initiate, yes... but they result in huge returns. A simple, candid, and honest conversation with your manager (or any colleague you are friendly with) could change the way you even carry yourself at work. How? Well, when you know you’re supported in your struggle to recover or cope or learn how best to manage with a recurring symptom, you will likely carry yourself with more self-confidence, be willing to talk to colleagues who you may discover are suffering silently from their own mental health struggles, and strengthen your view of what it means to be mentally ill — as in, you may not wear your diagnosis like a label of shame anymore.

That’s what I’ve found most surprising about initiating conversations with people I work with about how I feel in regards to the general attitude in that particular office about workplace mental health and about my own ongoing recovery process: you will often find someone understanding of your situation because of their own personal demons or because they care and love someone who is going through something similar to you.

It’s time for a more positive change

We have made progress in talking about mental illness, but there’s so much more to do.

We all pay a price when some of us are struggling, because you don’t really know when mental health struggles will become something you personally face. Mental illness does not discriminate against anybody. It affects everyone. That’s why it’s such a huge responsibility for us who do “get it” to speak up. Because our voices can educate and inform, support and encourage, help and heal others.

Let’s not let indifference to each other’s struggles or fear of retaliation, judgment, or backlash intimidate us into hiding our symptoms, hiding our compassion from others, or just becoming complacent to those who are obviously struggling with symptoms brought on by financial woes or everyday stress at work.

There’s a lot to gain as a society by speaking up, listening, and attempting to understand other, rather than being part of the problem and contributing to what may be making it difficult for someone you personally know at your office who wants to disclose their mental health diagnosis but is having a hard time doing that.

In today’s economy, there are fewer and fewer jobs available, especially for new graduates, that are full-time and permanent

I’ve certainly been one of those struggling to broach the subject - to ask for some mental health time off from work, for example. I remember this well because it was such a traumatic experience.

So, if you’re one of those people right now, I would like you to know that I understand the suffering and reasons for your hesitation... but if I could speak up, so can you! (And please remember, it gets easier once you decide to start.)

And if you’re one of those people who is in a position at work to make things easier for those who have need for a conversation like this: Speak up and let it be known that you’re open to discussing their current situation. Make those people aware that you’re open to finding out ways to accommodate them (perhaps it’s flex time, longer lunches here and there, breaks in between, a more relaxed setting during their presentation next week, an encouraging word before the meeting, etc… Everything counts!)

We also need to start changing our behaviour. It starts with more open conversation as a society about how unstable work, attitudes in the workplace, and the effects of high debt are contributing to an alarmingly high rate of deteriorating mental health. Everyone deserves to feel well. Mental health is not a privilege reserved for the financially stable, it’s everyone’s right, regardless of socioeconomic status.