Pete the Planner: How mental health impacts financial health

America’s mental health crisis continues to negatively impact our communities as very few sufferers are seeking or receiving proper treatment.

The World Health Organization notes that one in four people will experience a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their life, yet according to Mental Health America, only 44% of adults suffering from a mental health condition are currently receiving treatment.

Whether a person is receiving treatment or not, our mental health challenges aren’t experienced in a controlled environment. They affect our relationships. They affect our jobs. And they affect our finances.

The relationship between mental health struggles and financial struggles almost seems perpetual. A person’s mental health challenges can create financial challenges, those financial challenges can create more mental health challenges, and the cycle rarely ever stops. Assets are spent, debt is acquired, and then financial hardships nearly surpass the mental hardships which seemed to set the whole thing off in the first place.

Sometimes the negative financial consequences of mental health concerns are directly related to the condition itself, and sometimes the financial struggles are simply the byproduct of a life greatly affected by a mental health condition.

To better understand our brains and money, lets look deep inside our brains.

It’s not uncommon for people to feel better after spending money. It’s completely natural. You can credit dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. It’s produced in the ventral tegmental part of the brain and is released when a person expects or receives a reward of any kind.

In this case, the reward is the rush of acquiring something new via a purchase. There’s a more common phrase for this — retail therapy. If you’ve ever gone shopping to feel better about a bad day or a bad week, you’re actually on a quest to get dopamine flowing into your brain and experience its rush of pleasure. Believe it or not, the relationship between your money and your mental health is actually physical.

What I’ve just described is a very healthy and normal process. But sometimes our relationship with money can cross over to compulsive.

Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) is a serious medical condition that is characterized by an obsession with spending money and shopping, in spite of adverse financial, social, and personal consequences. If you’ve ever witnessed it, you might describe it as a frenzy or a mania of poor spending decisions. CBD can arrive alone into a person’s life, but it often presents itself alongside other mood and anxiety disorders, making it very difficult to treat. It’s a chronic condition that can ruin the financial life of both the person directly suffering from it, and the person’s family.

CBD knows no limit. It can wipe out a small fortune and it can wipe out a large fortune if untreated. Like many other mental health conditions, CBD is often stigmatized and trivialized. You see people every day celebrating their status as a “shopaholic” with a sense of playfulness. But there’s really nothing fun about it.

To make matters worse, the advent of online shopping and easy access to credit, paired with predatory lending, have stoked the fires of spending addiction. The American Journal of Psychiatry notes that roughly 5.8% of the population suffers from CBD, yet there numerous types of spending addictions and compulsions which are either isolated issues or symptoms of deeper mental health concerns.

Mental health problems must be treated, and not just explained away by well-meaning family members.

Suffering financially as a byproduct of a mental health condition is a bit more nuanced. Understanding stress and its impact on a person’s life is a great place to start. Prolonged stress can lead to increased occurrences of heart disease, depression, anxiety, diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer’s disease. The stress that triggers all of this can show up for a bevy of reasons, but the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports that 71% of Americans cite their finances as the key source of stress.

Not only do these health conditions cause even more stress, but they’re cripplingly expensive to treat. Stress can also create problems in a person’s ability to earn income. Well-being experts know the impact stress and other mental health conditions have on productivity at work. These productivity issues can lead to job insecurity and eventually job loss. The fact is, neither the employer nor the employee wants the employee to suffer from mental health issues, financially related or otherwise. But if mental health conditions aren’t treated, there will be financial consequences.

I generally try to provide practical solutions and actionable tips in each one of my columns, however today’s column is strictly about awareness and support. If you are financially suffering directly or indirectly because of a mental health challenge, seek help. You aren’t alone in your desire to feel better. Everyone around you wants the same for you, and they’re willing to do their best to connect you with the resources you need to get better.

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