Dealing with mental illness and the financial consequences

Illness doesn’t come cheap.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out whether or not you can relate it to personal experience.  It can be the little things just as much as the big ones.  I noticed this throughout a family member’s illness.  You don’t realise the financial costs involved to get to and from hospital, park and eat/drink there each day.  You don’t realise how much incidentals are involved to ensure your loved one’s comfort on a hospital ward.  The money drains away, bit by bit.

But take away the hospital, the car park, the Lucozade, the coffees.  Take away the visible, obvious physical illness and replace it with a mental illness.  Again the money drains away but you can’t always account for it.  People around you don’t see the illness, they don’t see the effect that it is having on you in the practical, financial sense.  That little fact can increase your own shame and embarrassment about the mess you suddenly find yourself in.  The best thing anyone has ever said to me about this is: “it’s not your fault” but it’s almost impossible to believe that.

In short years I went from having a permanent job, a handy enough mortgage and financial security to no job, illness benefits and a mortgage in severe jeopardy.  The financial mess plays havoc with the depressive and anxious aspects of my illness and a vicious circle can ensue as one increases the detrimental effects of the other.

This is the first time I have written about the financial aspect of my situation. Why?  Shame.  It isn’t easy to admit to poverty.  Not many people get it.  Some people see “skint” as not affording that dress or a holiday this summer.  Some people talk about savings as if it’s a physical impossibility that a person might not have any.

In my recent experience the only people who truly understand are the others who have or are there themselves – the people who have walked around a supermarket trying to stretch €5 into a shopping basket.  The people who know the struggle of trying to fit their meagre bank balance into a list of direct debits and oh, that horror when you realise one you haven’t taken into account.  The feeling when your clothes and shoes start to look genuinely shabby and charity shops are no longer a quirky habit but an absolute godsend.  The shame of admitting you need charitable help when you feel it’s the last thing you deserve.  Without a diagnosed mental illness these factors alone are pretty painful for ones’ health and self-esteem.

Illness – physical or mental – can mean such a myriad of life changes.  At the extreme are things like being unable to work, needing help to manage your affairs, planning your day around how you are feeling or might be feeling as the day goes on.  Financial affairs can be put on the back burner because let’s face it, you don’t want or need something new to worry about.  Deep down you know you should plan ahead for when the savings run out and you have to manage day by day but you don’t want to face it and sometimes you just can’t face it.

Financial trouble impacts on your mental health in other ways too.  You cut down first on the non-essential things, a social life being one of these.  This is not good when the professionals in your life are constantly warning about the dangers of self-isolation but neither do you want to be the one who can never pay their way or can never afford to do anything beyond a walk or a cup of coffee.

But for all the people who don’t get it, there’s still a good argument for taking a risk and confiding in those you trust.  You might find that there are good friends who meet you halfway, who don’t judge or lecture but happily come for the walk or the coffee or keep birthday and Christmas presents just on the right side of practical.  It’s worth the people who think you are still shopping in M&S for the few who discreetly text you with the special offers that mean a stocked fridge or press.

The other really important thing is to remember that you don’t have to handle it alone.  In my case it was easier to hide from it than face it by myself.  I knew I needed to phone the bank. But phone calls caused severe anxiety.  I knew I needed to sit and go through my forms.  But my concentration was rubbish.  I knew I needed to plan ahead and apply for benefits.  But “ahead” was terrifying.

Gradually I found and contacted supports I had been aware of but had never realised how helpful they could be. MABS for example.  I received support in exactly the ways I needed it.  One year on I have the same person handling my case who I now know and trust.  She can handle the negotiations with the bank and advise me without making the decisions for me.  She helps me to budget and to be aware of what money I need week by week for bills and essentials.  Talking about it in therapeutic settings means that the extent of the stress the situation causes is always noted and acknowledged and never judged even when aspects of my illness have made me make decisions that weren’t always the best ones for handling my affairs sensibly.

Things are far from okay.  I still lie awake in the night doing sums that just won’t add up.  I sit in my house wondering how much longer I can call it that.  I feel constant guilt about those around me who I could once help and treat and buy for.  On bad days I even feel guilt about my pets when I have to downgrade the quality of their meals.  There is no underestimating how gut wrenching and terrifying this situation can be.  And I say this as a single woman with no children.  I can’t imagine how hard it must be for those with families.

But I would say to anyone facing into the initial stages of this – whether it’s job loss, being off sick, having to change your routine drastically and suddenly.  Don’t put off facing the finances for too long.  Even if it’s bit by bit.  It’s not easy but it’s not impossible.  Banks appreciate you letting them know sooner rather than later that you are in difficulties.  Organisations like MABS can help you work with them to find solutions.  You can be very pleasantly surprised by what is possible.

I can honestly say that asking questions like “what’s the worst that can happen here?” wasn’t as bad as I thought.  Knowing is better than imagining.   I’ve even realised that on weeks that I am really struggling, sitting down and working out what I have for each day, even if it’s a grim figure, is better than speculating.  I can plan ahead.  I can work out what I need and what can wait.  I can sniff out a good deal or a bargain at ten paces.

Best of all are the people you’ll find when it is safe and right to talk about your situation.  It might be because they are in the same place as you or because they are willing to meet you there and hear you.  But ultimately, having them go through it with you makes it manageable and in a time of stress and worry, manageable is exactly what you need.

Help information

If you need to talk to someone please contact:

  • – Money advice and budgeting services – MABS Helpline – 0761 07 2000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) For a callback from the helpline, email:
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
Lucie Kavanagh
Lucie Kavanagh
I am an Ambassador for SeeChange and a Mental Health Blogger. I also write poetry and stories and live in Mayo with my 6 chickens, 3 cats and Maisie my dog.