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How Debt Affects Mental Health

How Debt Affects Mental Health, by Zachary Duty

“I really want some pogs for Christmas!” This is what I told my parents in 1995. And little did I know this would lead my family to learn an important lesson about debt and mental health. Not only did I get my beloved pogs with a new slammer, but I also got some new rollerblades and a hockey stick. I was thrilled, Mighty Ducks 2 was still fresh on my mind so some new skates were a great way to fulfill my dream of leading the flying V. Sounds like a great Christmas right?

Well it wasn’t as great as it sounds. My folks had to work double-time to come up with the money to put presents under the tree for 6 kids. They even picked up a second job at the mall working a stocking booth trying to make the ends meet. It wasn’t enough and my parents ended up putting the majority of their Christmas purchases on a credit card.

How Debt Can Harm Your Mental Health

As we enter the season of spending you may ask yourself if going a little into the red is worth it. In the name of instant gratification, it may actually be worth it. In the long haul debt will wreak havoc on your mental health.

Initially, debt is great. We get the dopamine hit of purchasing the object of our desires. On Christmas morning, everybody’s happy…no problem right?

A concerned man using a computer

Eventually, the end of your credit card statement period comes due and you take a look at the bill. “But hey, the minimum payment is only 35 bucks, I can handle that.” Wrong, most credit cards have an interest rate in the 20% zone, so making the minimum payment will NEVER pay it off…well not never, but it will take a very long time. So now you’re starting to feel the stress of an additional bill every single month. And this is where debt begins to affect your mental health.

Debt Triggers the Stress Response

The initial dopamine hit is long gone and you’re starting to feel a little anxious about making this payment every month. Now you’re getting a Cortisol hit, which is not as fun as dopamine. Cortisol is the stress chemical and it increases the availability of sugar, which is helpful if you’re being attacked by a predator but not so helpful if trying to keep your head above water financially. Cortisol also puts other systems on hold so you can respond to the “fight or flight” situation at hand, only there is no “fight or flight,” just your immune system slowing down because your body thinks it needs to run from a predator.

So how do you behave in this state? The two leading causes of divorce are sex and money, so simply put, you are not very well behaved when facing financial stress. Your stress and anxiety spill over into your most valued relationships and because you can’t pay your bills and you aren’t sleeping well, you may start treating your loved ones poorly. This comes with resentment of those who brought on the issue, blaming your kids or your wife for wanting Christmas gifts even though it was your decision to spend the money. Obviously, this isn’t a perfect example, but you’re beginning to get the picture of the effect debt has on mental health, it can be devastating.

The Long-term Effects of Debt On Mental Health

And I’m not done yet. Those damaged relationships, stress, and anxiety, if not treated can lead to debilitating depression and the feeling that you have completely lost control of your life. Or not having what you feel everyone else has could lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment. People who feel shame tend to hide and avoid relationships so no one can point out their mistakes. The mental health concerns list goes on, and I’m not even going to get into how mental health struggles lead to physical health problems.

A woman sitting on a cushion in the fetal position with hands covering face

Suffice it to say, there is a domino effect of negativity on your mental health set off by overspending. I witnessed some of these struggles as a child when my parents had to dig their way out of debt. It took years but they did it. The funny thing is, I would have been happy with just the pogs. A gift of a couple of bucks. Most of the people on your gift list feel the same way; a small heartfelt gift is as good as a pile of money or some new rollerblades. If they don’t, maybe they don’t deserve a place on your gift list.

All of the negative effects I’ve noted can be avoided if you live within your means. When the bank account gets to zero, that’s it, no more spending. Avoid experiencing firsthand how debt affects mental health. Make a budget, keep track and keep yourself healthy during this holiday season.

Zachary Duty, CSW

Zach Duty is a native Texan and a graduate of Southern Utah University with a bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Recreation. He went on to complete a master’s in social work at the University of Utah with an emphasis in child welfare. As a therapist, Zach has worked in residential treatment and for the state of Utah through the Division of Juvenile Justice.

If you or anyone you know is facing mental health challenges and needs support, we can help you.

You can share how you’re feeling or about your experience, or apply to our subsidized therapy program.