They say money can’t buy you happiness, but any one of us who has gone through difficult financial times can agree that a lack of money can certainly make you unhappy. Mental illness is not tied intrinsically to financial wealth – an individual with millions of dollars can still experience depression, while someone who is living in near poverty can still be mentally well. But it is impossible to deny that financial stress has a negative effect on a person’s mental health. By its very nature, it is a problem that tends to compound on itself; if you can’t afford to pay a bill, you often end up feeling more anxious or depressed, and this effect on your health can cause you to avoid paying the bill, or prevent you from being able to get the money together for it, increasing the amount that you owe, causing the anxiety to get even worse, and so on. To say that a poor financial status doesn’t affect your mental health in incredibly negative ways is to be disingenuous.
I’ve been there myself, and it’s a frustrating loop to be caught in. The mixed feelings of powerlessness and self-loathing are not a fun combination, because on the one hand, you feel as though an exterior force is constantly bringing you down, but on the other hand, you can’t help but blame yourself: am I in this situation because I didn’t study hard enough? Is it because I just didn’t get enough job experience? Is it because I’m not “good enough”?
These feelings of financial stress are not a rare occurrence. In a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association, 72% of adults reported feeling financially stressed “at least some of the time,” while nearly a quarter reported feeling “extreme stress,” going so far as to put their health needs on hold due to financial overwhelm. This is perhaps the most critical part of the issue: in America, taking care of behavioral and physical health usually requires a financial investment, whether that’s through paying for insurance, medication, and treatment, or simply taking the time when not working (if such time is available) to talk to a professional.
A lack of means can have a pervasive effect across multiple aspects of your life, which can all negatively impact your mental health. Access to healthy food, the ability to take time off to relax, and regular exercise all have as much of an effect on your mental health as they do on your physical wellness. Financial hardship doesn’t just mean that you can’t buy the things you want to buy; it affects your ability to take care of yourself in multiple facets of life. Also, financial stress can also lead to acute physical distress. In a study for the US National Library of Medicine, John A. Sturgeon et al. concluded that
“individuals who have experienced more major financial stressors report greater levels of psychological distress and lower levels of psychological well-being. Mediation analyses also suggested that financial stress may indirectly affect inflammatory activity through decreases in psychological well-being.”
In other words, greater financial difficulties impact not only how you feel, but how your body feels.
There are multiple factors at play that can cause these feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and depression. In an article for Thrive Global, Dr. Samantha Rodman described some of these factors. The most prevalent is the lack of a “safety net” – the feeling that everything could, at any moment, sweep away your house of cards often leaves you with a feeling of constant instability and anxiety. Other factors include the constant daily stressors that come with living in that mindset, an inability to actually fix issues that come up, and feelings of inferiority. It can be very degrading and frustrating to feel stuck in a low income situation, and it can be extremely difficult to actually climb out of it.
One of the things that can be the hardest is the feeling of uncertainty about the future. I know that for me, being in that financially difficult place left me feeling unsure of what my life would even look like. How would I be able to afford a house? Raise a family? Retire? These constant fears and doubts were the most draining aspect of the experience.
So where does that leave a person? What can you do when you’re in a position like this? Of course, solving financial crises isn’t an easy task, and there’s no surefire solution. But one of the most important things to do when you’re in a situation like this is to get help for your mental health. As someone who has struggled with financial difficulty, I know I struggled to get to a place where I felt I could reach out and get support; there was already so much to be worrying about. But often, the struggle to get to a state of financial stability can be just as impeded by your mental state as the other way around. If you’re struggling with depression and anxiety, that’s going to make the work feel almost impossible. So, whether it’s through working with a clinic, or taking the first steps on your own, be sure to take care of your mental wellness. Money can’t buy you happiness, but the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you’re in a stable place is a great way to start.