Money Matters: Addressing Financial Distress in Mental Health Treatment

Melanie Luxenberg loved shopping. High in the throes of hypomania, she would spend everything she had—and even what she didn’t. As her debts grew, she went to great lengths to keep her finances a secret from those around her, including her own parents. And still, she kept buying. It wasn’t until after her hypomania shifted form, leaving her frozen in anxiety, unable to sleep or eat, that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and finally understood the overwhelming impulse to spend. “How was I to know that my compulsive buying was part of the ‘high’ behaviour? I didn’t know what was happening to me, it just felt so good to buy and buy and buy and have all these things.” As she entered mental health treatment and began her journey of emotional recovery, she also had to repair her financial health—a process that took much longer. Five years after her diagnosis she was finally able to pay off the last of her hypomania-driven debt, allowing her to finally close that chapter of her life.

The Marriage of Mental and Financial Distress

While bipolar disorder may be the mental illness many most strongly associate with financial fallout due to extreme spending sprees undertaken in manic peaks, financial problems often haunt the lives of people with all types of mental health disorders. There are multiple reasons for the close and often painful relationship between mental and financial distress, including:

  • Symptoms of mental illness interfering with your ability to work
  • Overspending to meet emotional needs and distract you from pain
  • Psychological distress leaving you unable to manage your finances
  • High medical bills for psychiatric treatment and medications
  • Spending money on illicit drugs in an attempt to self-medicate
  • Lacking the impulse control to resist spending money

The stress of debt can itself aggravate psychological symptoms, creating a deepening cycle of financial and emotional suffering. A study by researchers at the University of Southampton and Kingston University published in Clinical Psychological Review found that people in debt were “three times more likely to have mental health problems than those who were not in debt” and those with depression, anxiety disorders, drug addiction, and psychotic disorders were most likely to have debt. Short-term debt such as credit card debt was the most strongly linked to mental health disorders. Dr. Thomas Richardson, lead author of the study, noted that the researchers did not seek to discover a causal relationship between debt and mental health, but the findings speak to the complex relationship between psychological wellness and finances.

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Mental Health Treatment and Financial Healing

Sometimes, finding effective mental health treatment is enough to naturally disrupt the cycle of financial distress. In other cases, however, mental health recovery must be accompanied by planned, deliberate financial healing. That healing must start from within. If you have developed an unhealthy relationship with money such as overspending to cope with overwhelming emotions or avoiding financial matters due to anxiety, it is critical to work through this in your therapeutic process to break through damaging patterns and develop the skills you need to psychologically handle finances. Simultaneously, addressing the impact of your finances on your illness and your sense of self can be a powerful part of your recovery process. Too often, financial problems leave you feeling deep shame and guilt, damaging your ability to love and care for yourself; by gaining the insight to see your financial decisions as an expression of deep psychological pain, you can learn to let go of those feelings and nurture a healthier relationship with yourself. If you have hidden your spending patterns and debt from loved ones, or if finances have created discord within your relationships, family and couples therapy can help you begin to repair those relationships with renewed honesty and understanding.

Toward Financial and Emotional Renewal

Once you are ready to begin the practical piece of your financial recovery, it is important to create a structured plan to act as a roadmap. If you are not confident in creating this plan yourself, enlist the help of a trusted and knowledgeable friend or family member, or seek professional help from a financial counsellor. What your personal plan will look like depends on your unique circumstances, behaviors, and the triggers you have identified through your therapeutic journey, but may include the following:

  • Taking inventory of your finances to gain a full understanding of your situation
  • Creating a realistic budget
  • Tracking your expenses
  • Using only cash to avoid running up credit card debt
  • Talking to a credit counsellor who can develop a strategy to pay off your debts

If the road to recovery seems daunting or you feel yourself sliding into old habits, seek the support of your mental health care provider to help you stay on course while preserving the gains you have made in treatment. Remember that not addressing these issues will only take you that much further from your goal. By combining your newfound emotional resources with thoughtful financial behaviors, you can truly begin to move forward and leave the cycle of distress behind.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential mental health treatment from people suffering from mental health disorders and co-occurring substance addiction. Contact us for more information about our program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to healing.