The Price Of Sanity: Debt and the Tax On Your Mental Health

Can't Afford To Love New York

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Out of the black, into the red…and, ultimately, into the blue. When financial challenges strike, on top of everything else one is dealing with in life, depression can very likely become the ultimately result.

The scenario, for many Americans in poor economic times, may go something like this: the job that was the bedrock of an individual, a couple, or even a family’s stability is cut. Unemployment pays out at a fraction (typically two-thirds) of one’s former salary, if at all, and the shame, stemming from stigmatization and self-repression, accompanies the government funds (that we paid into with our tax money over the years; a part of the equation that seems to get lost…or disappeared). In order to keep financial strain or debt at bay, perhaps we sell some items (stocks, if we’re lucky enough to have them, are usually the first to go). Anything to keep a family from going through their formerly “safety net” savings that is slowly eroding as costs continue to rise. There is no safety net: you are forced to give it away. And suddenly, the balance of one’s savings account is noticeably smaller. And smaller. There do not seem to be any jobs, and the ones that do exist pay a fraction of one’s former career (and more frequently even less than unemployment…but that runs out). Even one unexpected economic hit, like an illness, can entirely erode one’s savings, as if happening with increasing frequency. And then, you enter the world of interest rates and debt collectors, and suddenly, you’re not sleeping so well. Or breathing so well. Or a whole lot of things you used to be able to do. You feel beyond trapped in a way, perhaps, you never have. As researchers from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London illustrated in their study, Debt & Mental Health:

The human costs of debt can negatively impact on personal identity. Identity is often understood as a sense of who we ‘are’, and how we are similar or different from others. Debt can significantly change how people live their lives, induce feelings of uncertainty about what is going to happen next, as well as engendering feelings of stigma and shame. [Further], debt or repayment difficulties appear to be independently associated with thoughts about suicide.

And there is little reason to wonder why. Real wages in America have not increased in over 30 years…but the cost of living has sky-rocketed, especially in major cities like New York and San Francisco. In the US, average household credit card bill (before interest) stands at $15,000. Thoughts of “bettering” one’s lot in life, especially as an adult, by attending college, has also never been as challenging. The cost of a private, nonprofit, four-year college has risen by over 265% in the past three decades. Those who simply say, well go to a public university, are really not helping the argument to lower education costs either, as the price of four-year public higher education institutions have risen by a staggering 360% in the same time period. And to make matters worse, student loans have doubled in just nine years, and grants have taken a massive dip. Those who have gotten out of universities in the past decade, even with high grades and seemingly “desirable” degrees, are having a harder time than ever finding employment; if they do, the average salary (and benefit package, if it exists at all), have also tanked. No wonder the rate of student debt in the US stands at a mind-blowing $1.2 TRILLION. And none of this has shown signs of stopping, as tuitions rates for the 2013-2014 academic year, which just began at the time of this writing, increased yet again. Couple that with a healthcare system that is brutally expensive and offers scant mental health coverage, and a society that continues to stigmatize behavioral health, and it’s no wonder that out of the staggering ~90 daily suicide attempts, many are poverty-driven.

So now what? The most important thing, for the time being, may be to continue to educate ourselves regarding best practices to deal with living during a depression/recession cycle that has adversely impacted many, but most directly, the so-called “future leaders”…and to care about and look out for the well-being of one and other. Dr. Daniel J. Reidenberg points out that people with other major life stressors simultaneously occurring (i.e., mental health struggles, addiction, job loss, end of a relationship, death of a loved one, and so on), debt is particularly  deadly, as “the financial burn will put them over the edge and lead them to an attempt.” (Especially if they cannot pay for therapy!)

While you may be in economic trouble along with your partner or friend or business associate (many are as of late), it’s important to realize that some people are frustrated and some people are becoming sick. People have the tendency to assume others are economically better off than they really are, and thus many warning signs for developing mental health issues are often missed. Make sure you take note if any of the following surface in a person you love who is going through a rough time.

Signs Of Depression (In The Fiscally Stressed & Others)

Foreclosure sale. Everything must go. sale

According to Daniel J. Reidenberg, a psychologist and Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), “There are numerous available resources to people in debt, [but] when someone is suffering from depression, their brain doesn’t think logically or rationally, so they’re not able to consider options. They’re not able to find resources. They’re not able to get out of bed let alone make a phone call. […] Depression literally takes over their life.”

  • Persistent sadness
  • Excessive crying
  • Difficulty sleeping/Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Increased irritability or anger
  • Substance/medication abuse
  • Decreased cognitive functioning
  • Difficulty concentrating or remaining focused
  • Lack of proper functioning at work, school, home, etc.
  • Increased isolation
  • No longer caring about things that were once important
  • Feelings of worthless and hopelessness
  • Self-blaming and negative self-talk
  • Bleak view of the future

Warning Signs Of Suicidal Ideation

  • Uncharacteristically or amplified reckless behavior
  • Preoccupation with death and dying (research, discussion, writings)
  • Sense of life/self as hopeless, purposeless, and worthless
  • Loss of interest in maintaining relationship and former interests
  • Increase use of substance abuse
  • Inappropriately irritable and anger attitude
  • Seeming to tie up loose ends/get things in order/returning borrowed items
  • Drafting a will and making arrangement for after their death
  • Giving away possessions that were once cherished
  • Tendency to cry and heightened depression/anxiety
  • Suddenly appearing very calm (Please note: Loved ones often mistake this dangerous symptom as “recovery” when it’s actually one that should cause alarm and even action.)

Remembering To Breathe: Strategies For Coping With Stressful Times

(For people with pre-existing mental health conditions: DO NOT stop engaging in therapy or taking medication (if applicable) because of financial challenges. The depressed and illogical thinking will only prolong the time one spends in debt…and can have dire consequences.) Remember: this is a temporary situation. Others have been here and successfully managed to escape, and you can too!

  • Do Not Allow Debt To Control Your/Your Loved One’s Life.  The simple fact of it is, most people do not have the privilege of being “too big to fail,” like the corporate sector does. According to David Alecock, a vice president at InCharge Institute, the financial education arm of InCharge Solutions, “The biggest mistake people make is to allow problems with debt to control their lives, rather than controlling their debt.” Instead, try to understand how the debt occurred, both to help eliminate it and to prevent it from happening again…at least so severely. Understanding that there is indeed a positive way out is an essential first step to getting there. Out of depression first; out of debt second. Dr. Reindenberg puts it this way: “Plan and participate in getting them through the stress.”
  • Reality Check On Your Spending Habits. This can be enormously challenging, especially if one is already feeling beat down and is having trouble getting out of bed or motivating themselves, but documenting monthly spending is a great way to fundamentally understand concrete monthly expenses and the length of time it will take to pay down the debt. One is likely to engage in solution-building if one feels confident  there is a purpose. Let’s say you feel as if you’ll be in debt forever, which causes you to feel hopeless and ultimately suicidal. What if “forever” can be calculated…and it’s actually 16 or 18 months? Getting those facts sorted out is vital, even if the first understanding (“I’ll be in debt for three years?”) is frustrating. In short: YOU KNOW THE WAY TO A BRIGHTER FUTURE! This may be extremely draining, but remember, if you need help, ask for it.

    Drowning in Debt No More

    It is estimated that a single suicide adversely affects six people at a minimum. Guilt doesn’t help anybody. If someone you love is trying to help, remember that they want to. Thank them by accepting!

  • Do Not Wait To Get/Offer Help. If you wait until hitting rock bottom before seeking resources (family, counselors, fiscal analysts, friends), the chances of winding up in an emotionally dangerous state are greater than if one reaches out before slamming into crisis-mode. This too shall pass; never forget that! The longer one waits, the worse the debt gets, and the more cognitively drained the debtor is. It is essential to talk to somebody as soon as possible about being in financial trouble. It does not mean you are a failure. It means you are one of hundreds of millions who are struggling in a rough economy. Until you seek them out/start looking, you won’t be aware how many helpful resource there are.
  • Yes: There Are Support and Informational Groups For Debtors! When a family is going through a foreclosure crisis or declaring bankruptcy, chances are they are going to blame themselves and feel very, very alone. That’s where support groups come in, which no one should be ashamed to attend. There are all different types of debtors’ support groups, so you can easily find one that meets your needs and see if it is a match. They offer solidarity, and can provide workshops and educational courses on  problems such as compulsive spending, gambling, drafting practical budgets, and loan-management. What’s more, because others are in a similar position, you can proactively help each other with spending plains, and discuss financial fears. You’ll also learn that you try can have a brighter, debt-free (or limited) future…and yes, you can feel and be in control of your life again!
  • Other Support and Informational Groups:

    • Debtors’ Anonymous: “Debtors’ Anonymous offers hope for people whose use of unsecured debt causes problems and suffering in their lives and the lives of others. For some people, unsecured debt, which is debt not secured by some form of collateral such as a house or car, becomes an addictive and unmanageable part of their lives. Debt is more than just sensationalized shopping. It can cripple and ruin someone’s life. our purpose is threefold: to stop incurring unsecured debt, to share our experience with the newcomer, and to reach out to other debtors.”
    • InCharge: “InCharge’s Certified Financial Counseling team has many years of experience working with people in all walks of life with every degree of debt load.  They listen to you, provide sound and legitimate advice and offer realistic solutions customized to your unique situation.  Best of all, they’re your partner in conquering debt by developing a specific action plan that gets you out of debt in a reasonable amount of time.  They also direct you to InCharge’s extensive library of educational materials, tools, calculators and other resources to equip you for a future of carefree, debt-free living.”
    • National Foundation for Credit Counseling: “NFCC Member Agencies provide a variety of free and/or affordable services. As the nation’s largest financial counseling organization, the NFCC Member Agency Network includes more than 600 community-based offices located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. NFCC Member Agencies provide financial counseling and education to millions of consumers each year in person, over the phone, or online. To locate an NFCC Member Agency in your area call 800-388-2227 or visit the website.”
    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: “The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. By dialing 1-800-273-TALK(8255), the call is routed to the nearest crisis center in our national network of more than 150 crisis centers. The Lifeline’s national network of local crisis centers offer crisis counseling and mental health referrals day and night.”
    • SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education): “This site, along with our work, is based on the foundation and belief that suicide should no longer be considered a hidden or taboo topic and that through raising awareness and educating the public, we can SAVE lives.”
    • Don’t forget to read the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ extensive and bold informational packet, Debt collection and mental health: ten steps to improve recovery.

Believe in happiness again. With knowledge comes the power to free yourself from the chains of debt and amplified depression. You can do it!