what constantly worrying about money does to your mental health

Behind the smoke screen of outrageous money diaries and upscaled Instagram shots, financial difficulties are seriously harming young people.

by Cristiana Bedei
23 October 2018, 7:15am

Whether it’s the infamous avocado splurging or the fact that much of this generation is harvesting the ripest fruits of a busted economy, millennials are broke. And, incidentally, more anxious and depressed too.

If you’ve ever experienced debt, struggled to make ends meet, or simply just lived pay cheque to pay cheque, you’ll be familiar with the overwhelming stress that financial insecurity can breed. According to a study published last year by UCL, unemployed young adults in England were reported twice as likely than those in employment to be suffering from a mental illness. Among those employed, the ones on zero-hour contracts were at a higher risk of psychological distress. People may like the flexibility, but the instability that comes with casual work can be extremely harmful, as we previously examined.

Psychiatrist Dr. Jed Boardman, an expert in the field of poverty, explains that those in distress because of financial difficulties often need reliable advice on how to manage or avoid debt, yet never seek it -- invariably falling into the vicious cycle that begins with having no money and develops into a mental health problem. This cycle is perpetuated by the cruel reality that, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or suffering from a mental illness, it’s not simply that you cannot work, it's also hard to find the energy or motivation to handle the administrative side of your finances.

“Money problems become a real material difficulty, it’s not merely worrying about it,” says Dr. Boardman. “If you think about how you may develop a diagnosable mental health problem, what you need is some event that pushes you over into that state.” With anxiety conditions, he explains, that is often the threat of a possible loss, like hearing that you might be made redundant. If you develop a depressive disorder, you’ve often already experienced a loss of some sort.

"If you’re feeling overwhelmed or suffering from a mental illness, it’s not simply that you cannot work, it's also hard to find the energy or motivation to handle the administrative side of your finances."

Living in a city like London or New York, the threat of overspending is perpetually present. “If I forget to make lunch and I need to go get it, I think: ‘Okay, I really need to get a meal deal’,” says Bethan Buswell, a 29-year-old full-time charity worker from London. “Even if someone invites me out for a drink, I’m anxiously thinking: ‘I don’t know if I can budget that in for this month’. If I’m at the pub and people want to do a round, there’s no way I want to do one because I want to stay out of my overdraft and start saving.”

Raised by her single mum, Bethan says she has always been aware that money wasn’t an easy thing. Now, living with a mild form of bipolar and dyscalculia -- a learning difficulty for mathematics -- she has friends who help her manage her finances. “I wouldn’t say I have ever felt financially secure as an adult, and it’s something which is actually a goal.” At her previous job, she put together some savings through a share scheme: “It was genuinely the cliche of a weight lifted,” she explains. She felt more hopeful about the future, she could afford to have bigger aspirations. But then she got physically ill, lost out on work and had to use the money to support herself. “It’s back to that feeling of: ‘What if something went terribly wrong?’.”

“When I’m in a low place or more depressed, I tend to feel low self-esteem, lack of self-motivation and I kind of just want to hide away, from finances as well,” Bethan says.

"Isn’t our voyeuristic obsession with money diaries a form of escapism as well as a subtle cry for help?"

There are 14 million people living below the breadline in the UK, over eight million of which are working-age adults. In the aftermath of a deep recession and austerity politics; the employment rate is at a record high but wages are still lower than they were before the crisis 10 years ago, more people than ever are in precarious work and a third of millennials are expected to rent for life. In America, the UN has estimated that 18.5 million people are living in "extreme poverty," while young adults are earning around $2,000 less than they were in 1980.

Yes, money can’t buy happiness, but poverty sells misery. As adults, we are expected to do well and have it together, and if that doesn’t happen, we wonder if we’re the only ones messing up. Isn’t our voyeuristic obsession with money diaries a form of escapism as well as a subtle cry for help? In extreme cases, the stigma is so much that the consequence is devastating. In 2016, a 19-year-old from south London took his own life over £130 traffic tickets that ballooned into £1000 debt, racked up as a self-employed contractor delivering supplies to hospitals for a company. This kind of pressure is unfair -- and the loss heartbreaking.

When saving is a luxury, taking control of your finances can feel daunting, but it is a vital act of self-preservation that will bring peace in the long run. Ask for help, if you need it. You can get free debt advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau Debt Management and charities like the Debt Support Trust or Step Change. At times of crisis, the Samaritans provide 24-hour support. You may just need to start small: checking your bank account regularly, tracking expenses with an app, looking for a convenient savings scheme or budgeting for the week. It’s a challenge, it takes patience and there are no fixed solutions, but every small step says that you’re making it.

For more information on debt and mental health you can check this page on the Mental Health Foundation website.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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