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Mental Health and Financial Awareness

by Donna Reid Washington, MHS, LPC, AbD

“The most important investment you can make is in yourself.”  —Warren Buffett

As we approach the holiday season and the end of the year, keep your financial and mental health in mind. Though easier said than done, try to minimize stress where you can.

America’s mental health crisis continues to negatively impact our communities as very few sufferers seek or receive 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 or not a person is receiving treatment, mental health challenges are not 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 hardship sets in.

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 is 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.  The common phrase for this is retail therapy. If you have ever gone shopping to feel better about a bad day or a bad week, you are actually on a quest to get dopamine flowing into your brain and experience its rush of pleasure. The relationship between your money and your mental health is actually physical.

However, 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. CBD is often stigmatized and trivialized. You see people every day celebrating their status as a “shopaholic” with a sense of playfulness. To make the situation worse, the advent of online shopping creates easy access to spending. The American Journal of Psychiatry notes that roughly 5.8% of the population suffers from CBD. 

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 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports that 71% of Americans cite their finances as the key source of stress.

Your debt may cost you more than just interest. Research shows there is a clear link between your financial health and your mental health, and your debt may serve as a tangible representation of your psychological state.

No matter what comes first—the debt or the mental health problems—the solution may be to address both problems simultaneously. When you are mentally healthy, it is easier to attack your debt, and when you are getting your finances in order, it is easier to improve your mental health.

Sources: Peter Dunn, “Pete the Planner, How Mental Health Affects Financial Health,” USA Today, August 26, 2017, and Amy Morin, “What your Financial Health Says About Your Mental Health,” Psychology Today, July 22, 2015.


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