In December of last year, I had my first (and hopefully last) panic attack. It was a terrifying experience, one that threw me into a tailspin of ‘Jesus Christ what have I been doing to myself?” for days and weeks after. In hindsight, I’m glad it happened because it shed light on how much I’d been ignoring my mental health. And man, when you ignore that, it *will* bite you back hard at some point. It also resulted in me getting a full-time job a little over a month later. Why? Because no matter how many times I’d said it in passing to friends and family, for some reason it hadn’t completely sunk in—being in debt was literally making me sick.
For all the talk about mental health these days, we still aren’t acknowledging the massive role money plays in our emotional well-being. Almost comically proving the point, googling the issue yields a majority of UK-focused sites – even the first news article to come up was from Cosmopolitan UK – or irrelevant and unhelpful years-old articles. This Psychology Today piece from 2010 is the number 3 (!) result when you search for “role of money in mental illness,” and takes the extremely therapeutic approach of blaming you for not having money. While yes, ‘tis true that some manage their money better than others, it’s becoming more and more evident that many Americans don’t have sufficient funds to cover the basics, much less extra to “manage.” Consider:
By the end of 2018, Americans had racked up $420 billion in credit card debt. Student loan debts have more than doubled in the past 10 years, hitting $1.36 trillion in 2018. (Please go back and confirm that the number is in the trillions.) Perhaps most depressingly, a 2017 study found that 73% of consumers had died with debt—excluding home loans, the average balance was $12,875.
The reason for this goes all the way back to WWII. In November of last year, economist Morgan Housel wrote perhaps one of the best explanations I’ve ever read of American economics. At 5,000 words, it’s a tall reading order but if you find the time, I highly recommend it.
Basically, the concept of debt went from being a manageable and not-scary idea to an insurmountable crushing burden. Since I know you’re not going to read that article, I’ll sum it up for you in two quotes:
“…Sharp inequality became a force over the last 35 years, and it happened during a period where, culturally, Americans held onto two ideas rooted in the post-WW2 economy: That you should live a lifestyle similar to most other Americans, and that taking on debt to finance that lifestyle is acceptable.”
And perhaps even pithier:
“The economy works better for some people than others. Success isn’t as meritocratic as it used to be and, when success is granted, is rewarded with higher gains than in previous eras.”
In a culture as success and work-driven as ours, merely surviving is now a badge of dishonor.
I’m not here to propose solutions for fixing the debt crisis. What I am here to posit is that we give more credence to the concept that money has a profound impact on our psyches, and that solving financial ills can be something of a magic bullet when it comes to situational depression in many people.
You may have seen this piece make the rounds recently, on the massive impact a mere $15 minimum wage has on a person’s life. Culled from a variety of research reports, here are a few things that happen when you mandate a $15 minimum wage:
- Reduced child-neglect reports, by almost 10 percent
- Decreased rates of low birth-weight babies
- Lower rates of teen births
- Decreased rates of teen alcohol consumption
- Decreased rates of smoking
And perhaps most compelling: “roughly 2,800 and 5,500 premature deaths that occurred in New York City from 2008 to 2012 could have been prevented if the city’s minimum wage had been $15 an hour.”
More and more people in my immediate orbit are hurting mentally because they’re hurting fiscally. I’m confident there are several in your world too. Success isn’t what it used to be, with mere survival vastly more tenuous. And in a culture as success and work-driven as ours, merely surviving is now a badge of dishonor. It makes you constantly question your skills, your life decisions, your value as a human being. You spend hours, days, weeks trapped in your head, berating yourself in every way possible. You doubt your very worth as a person. As the above article puts so well, not having enough money to live “makes people feel small, insignificant, and powerless.”
I am extremely lucky in that I recently found a good job. A little over a month in, I’m realizing what I put myself through the last 4 years as freelancer. How tightly I was holding myself in, lest my panic spill over and be seen publicly. I never let go.
It made me feel more shame than I can even put into words.
It woke me up in the middle of the night several times a week, on the verge of such fear and anxiety that I could barely breathe.
It raised my blood pressure.
It made me embarrassed to face my children when I couldn’t afford to buy them new clothes.
It sent me into the gig economy, delivering food to people in offices I should have been in or run-down apartments of people worse off than me.
It made me darkly jealous, to the point of anger, of people who did have money, a feeling that is decidedly gross to see within yourself.
It caught up with me completely one morning last December, when what I didn’t know was a panic attack hit and I thought I was about to die.
I don’t put much stock in regrets and fully believe that the last 4 years were necessary. Graceless was borne of them, after all, something which has had a positive effect on more people than just me and Allyson. What I do wish is that someone or something would have pointed me in the direction of, “Hey this isn’t about your value or worth. This isn’t a statement on your abilities. You need more money to live on. Period.” The few times I did come up for air and give myself a little bit of love was when I talked to other people in the same boat. Commiseration is a vital part of being human; perhaps no more so than around an issue like money.
One of the worst mental actions we perform on ourselves is shame. As my therapist says, it sits hand in hand with fear. Shame kneecaps us in the worst possible way, hating ourselves, berating ourselves, while preventing us from opening up and talking to others. In a profit-driven society, there is perhaps no greater shame than being poor. Let’s change that. Let’s sap some power from money by talking about it more openly, being honest about when we struggle with it, and when we feel successful.
This is a mental health problem that can actually be solved. If only we would recognize it as such.