I didn't realise how expensive it is to be mentally ill until I was £5k in debt

In March 2019, I was diagnosed with type two bipolar disorder. During my worst period of mental health, the most significant thing I lost was financial security.

Before my diagnosis, I would swing rapidly between periods of depression, where my main hobby was lying in the dark and staring at a wall. By contrast, intense high periods were the emotional equivalent of being permanently high on cocaine.

I have dealt with mental illness for much of my adult life. But it wasn’t until I got the correct diagnosis and treatment that I realised the disastrous effect it was having on my finances.

I’ve always been a shopper. I love fashion, food, drinking and being creative. These have long been expensive hobbies. Moving to London, where everything costs twice as much, only exacerbated this.

Being in an expensive city and financially independent for the first time forced me to be more vigilant about what I was spending money on. Soon a worrying trend became apparent: my spending spiralled out of control whenever my mental health took a turn for the worse.

When I was depressed, I would do anything to escape those feelings. I spent far more on alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and clubbing in an attempt to avoid dealing with my issues. I splashed out on expensive clothes and make-up to try and feel better about myself. I bought costly face masks and moisturisers in the name of ‘self-care’. I ordered food online when I didn’t have the energy to cook or go to the shops, which was constantly.

When I was manic, I spent for different reasons. I would fleetingly decide I was going to make all of my own clothes and buy numerous books, needles, threads and accessories so I could do it. Another time, I decided I was going to lie my way into an MBA course I was unqualified for, and bought books and work wear that would get me accepted. I’d buy sparkly, garish clothes that I thought could express my mood.

Of course, once the brief period of mania subsided, I stopped wanting to do any of these things.

During a year of severe mental health issues prior to my diagnosis, I spent £5,000 of savings and ploughed straight to the bottom of my £2,000 overdraft.

Online conversations about mental health have boomed in the last few years. There are countless resources on self-care, treatments and recovery. But what I wasn’t prepared for, and found little information on, was how expensive it is to be mentally ill – even excluding the costs of healthcare and therapy.

During a year of severe mental health issues prior to my diagnosis, I spent £5,000 of savings and ploughed straight to the bottom of my £2,000 overdraft. Eventually having to dig myself out of that hole was a daunting task.

Financial instability has a detrimental effect on mental health in itself. Our culture treats conversations about money as taboo. It can be as difficult to ask for help with money as it is for mental health issues. Being in debt is stressful and isolating.

Now, with help from my family and friends, I’m finally on the path to financial recovery.

Primarily, I had to overcome the embarrassment of asking for help. My sister is the most frugal person I’ve ever met and was insightful about her mindset – thinking about your bank balance with every purchase, not just blindly spending. She still questions me if I seem to be shopping a lot or making big purchases. I just have to trust that she’s doing it to help me, not to judge me (most of the time).

Now, I have tools to stop my bank account taking such a hit when my mental health dips.

I stock up on non-perishable, easy to prepare meals for when I don’t have the energy to cook (tinned soup and frozen fish fingers are a godsend). I also keep everything in my online shopping baskets for at least a few days before I buy, so I can think about whether it’s something I really need or can afford.

I talk to my family before I make larger purchases to make sure it’s sensible. I focus on getting better at hobbies I already have the tools for, rather than constantly picking up new ones.

If I find a pastime I really want to try, I wait until my birthday or Christmas and ask for the things I need to get started. Sometimes I go cash-only if my spending is getting reckless.

Mental illness is incredibly difficult in many ways. But with support from those you trust, you can avoid it bankrupting you as well.

As with so many things, you have to admit you need help before you can get better.

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