My eyes are hot and tearful. I’m trembling, as my gasps for air grow increasingly difficult. I’m trapped. I can’t move. The words “I’m a failure” repeat in my mind incessantly as I stare at my bank account’s negative balance. I’ve experienced panic attacks countless times over the years. The cause is most often money.
Financial stress is an underrecognized cause of mental health challenges. For many marginalized communities, my own included, financial instability is a mental health crisis. Data from the American Psychological Association shows that people often cite money as a top contributor to their overall stress and that anxiety about money is most likely to occur among people with lower incomes. Yet talking about money remains taboo, and discussions of mental health and self-care rarely include tangible ways to deal with the unique agony of financial struggles or the structural injustices that financial stressors stem from. Experts say financial stress should be viewed as a potential trauma in a person’s life, and mental health professionals can play a role in how that trauma is treated.
The risk for widespread financial trauma is especially high right now. The Covid-19 pandemic is introducing many people to the experience of financial vulnerability for the first time — around 20 million Americans are now unemployed — and for others, issues like job insecurity and slashed salaries are exacerbating a preexisting condition. A growing body of research suggests these kinds of financial stressors can cause lasting mental health damage. A 2019 study of young adult unemployment found that for each year without a job, the odds of having depression increased by 33% and the odds of generalized anxiety disorder increased by 19%.
Quinn Gee, a licensed professional counselor at Magnolia Mental Health in Washington, D.C., primarily serves Black LGTBQ folks in their twenties and thirties. Gee says that many of her clients work in the informal economy — jobs and activities that are not regulated, leaving workers unprotected — with some engaging in survival sex work. “They have lost their jobs,” Gee says. “Covid has really impacted their ability to provide for themselves. A lot of them are in limbo, waiting on unemployment or stimulus checks. This is something they’ve had to add as a stressor on top of the hardship they were already dealing with.”
Jason Nicholsen, a licensed clinical social worker who works with the Center for Financial Social Work located in North Carolina, says more people are coming in with symptoms of financial anxiety. “They’ll say, ‘I notice I’m clenching my jaw,’ or ‘I feel so depressed I can’t get out of bed,’” says Nicholsen. “They describe feeling guilt: ‘I’m not as productive as I could be.’ ‘I’m not making enough money for my family.’”
Experiencing financial instability can snowball into financial trauma, which Gee defines as “a set of experiences related to money, or a lack of money, that cause harm.” This includes people who are in financially abusive relationships and people in other circumstances where they cannot make decisions about money, like those who are unemployed and youth who are financially dependent on their guardians.
And yet, so often financial stressors are not viewed as mental health issues. As Covid-19 continues to devastate communities, the same “solution” that’s always given when people are in dire economic straits is raised once again: better financial education and literacy. But the call for greater financial “literacy” so often blames those experiencing acute economic crises for a situation caused by capitalism and greed that a few tips won’t solve. Financial education becomes synonymous with budgeting, building savings, and other so-called “must do’s” that aren’t accessible to many people. The mental health toll of an economic system driven by profit — where necessities get more expensive and further out of reach while wages stagnate — is completely left out. As both Gee and Nicholsen share, financial trauma is real, and shame is a huge source of distress for those experiencing it. What is needed is more recognition and research on the connections between financial instability and mental health. Financial education should focus on equipping people with the tools needed to do more than cope under a broken system.
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