Mental ill health and money problems often go hand in hand and, sadly, these issues affect many more of us than we care to admit.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in two adults has a mental health problem, and one in four people with a mental health problem is also in debt.
This time of year can be especially hard for people because of the pressure to spend money we might not have, to spend time with our families (all of whom we are expected to like), and to generally have an experience which would not look out of place on a supermarket Christmas advert. This just isn’t an option for everyone, so it’s easy to feel lonely, isolated, and stressed about money.
But there is hope. I invited an anonymous guest blogger to share his story of how he went through a debt and mental health crisis and came out the other side. There are helpful resources at the bottom of the article if you too are affected by any of these issues.
Here is his story:
I never expected to have to write an article like this. I was earning a decent wage for a multinational firm based in central London. As a basic salary I made £34k a year and, with bonus, this could easily rise to £40k with no real cap dependent on my performance. But I overspent in the times of plenty, I got sick, and all of a sudden I had virtually nothing.
When I say I got sick, I mean that I lost track of managing the different conditions I have. They are all interlinked but, to give you the full picture, I have suffered from and continue to fight against depression, low mood, anxiety (particularly social anxiety), panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder. My job did not help any of these – I worked in a high-pressured recruitment sales environment servicing the City.
Why on earth did I get in to this line of work in the first place? I suppose I was sick of being a poor student, I saw friends go off and earn good money straight out of university and, as a single man, my wage allowed me to live a life seemingly with no responsibility. I found the City fascinating, too, and, in honesty, for the first 12 months or so I relished the work I did. My job was to go and find new business. It was interesting – I learnt about high-frequency trading, the ins and outs of financial instruments, and I ate and drank a lot in nice restaurants and private members’ bars.
Drinking is part and parcel of life in recruitment.
I was told that if I was not spending an absolute minimum of £500 a month on ‘entertaining’ clients then I was not doing my job properly.
Lunch out once or twice a week, drinks in the evening, all in the name of convincing people I’d never met before to give me thousands of pounds in commission.
For a man with social anxiety, this may seem like a peculiar area of business to find oneself in. I agree, and looking back now it was not a good fit. But at the time I thought I was on top of my condition. No, I was hiding my condition from everyone, even my best friends, even my closest friend with whom I shared a flat.
This life spilt over in to the weekend and, instead of relaxing and enjoying my time off, I found myself in a never-ending spiral of going out and getting leathered, recovering in time for a rest on Sunday, before heading off to work again with all the eating and drinking. It sounds great, and as I said, I loved it for the first 12 months or so. But it was deeply unhealthy for my body, and poisonous for my mind.
It seems as if it happened to a different person now.
I managed at the end of nearly three years in that job to have lost control of all spending (by the end I was not even claiming half of my expenses back) and when I left with no job to go to I was in a debt of around £10k. I had spent money on clothes, holidays, drink, drugs, football matches, dining out at top restaurants, music festivals and on and on. While I was earning £40k a year, that was no problem – I could service my credit card debt easily.
But I had no plan. I was going from week to week in such a rush of long hours and even longer nights and weekends that when I try to discern much from that period it all appears as a blur in my mind. On the surface I was happy, inside I was not. I saw what my peers were doing and thought that I too had to live that way. I never stopped to think what I was doing to my financial well-being as it never occurred to me that the money would ever run out.
Admitting to a problem, whatever it is, is the start of making things better.
I would like to claim to be some sort of financial guru now, but I’m not. Not even close. I did have some realisations though, and they proved fundamental to regaining my happiness. I quit that job and found a new career, one in which my rewards are not determined by my pay packet. I work for a charity helping some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Occasionally, I now advise others on their financial problems!
I have had to make some serious changes to my life, but not a single one of them has been for the worse.
I found a job pulling pints in a village pub, which gave me time to think while providing me with the small income I needed to meet minimum payments.
How did I get back on track?
- I leant on those closest to me – I sought advice from people I trusted, and I even stayed with a good friend free of charge for a couple of months. What I thought was a total disaster was put in to context. £10k is a lot of money to owe, but it is not crippling if you do the right things. I spoke at length with Citizens Advice who were able to reassure and then advise me.
- I spoke directly with my creditors – this meant a couple of different banks with whom I had a loan and two credit cards. I explained my situation, that I had had to leave work through ill-health, but that I could maintain a small payment each month. Both were far more accommodating that I had anticipated. At first I was making nominal payments of £5 a month to each.
- Once I was earning more than the minimum wage again, I was able to commit to more than the minimum payments to my creditors – they will ask you to go through an income and expenditure form to assess what you can afford. My advice is to be hard on yourself if you want to get anywhere fast, but be honest – if you spend £50 a month on cigarettes, make sure you mention it or you’ll have a £50 hole in your budget at the end of each month.
- I cut back – there is no simple way around this. I learned to live within my means again – if I can’t afford it, I don’t buy it. I do not own credit cards anymore. Charity-shop shopping is my new MO.
- I keep a record of what I’m spending – I thought this sort of thing was only for the over cautious and accountants. I was wrong. Having a budget and accepting it for what it is has actually been liberating rather than restrictive – I’m certainly a lot more creative when it comes to finding entertainment for myself these days.
- I live a simpler life – or, in even plainer English, I stopped drinking. This is not for everyone, obviously, such is the importance of alcohol in 21st century Britain, but it has been 18 months since I last had a drink and it is no coincidence that my bank balance in that period has improved enormously.
- Don’t stick your head in the sand – this is the most important thing. If you think you may have a problem, you probably do, and ignoring it will only see it get worse. As soon as I turned on my problems, they backed down. You need to be organised and determined and have good people to support you, but it can be done.
If you are worried your money situation or anything else is affecting your mental health, have a look at some of these great resources:
If you’re interested in the link between money and mental health, my friend and fellow journalist Leah has recently started a blog on the subject: http://www.mentalwealth.info
And here’s a blog I wrote about spotting the signs of a debt crisis:
There’s no shame in being in debt or struggling with your health, whether physical or mental. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help.