How are Debt, Mental Health, and Poverty Related?

Posted on August 22, 2017 by Joseph Brown

We’re probably all familiar with the often-quoted reminder: Money does not buy happiness. While we can likely all agree that money doesn’t buy true happiness, it does pay the bills. And, our ability to pay the bills can certainly be correlated with our happiness – at least to some degree.

In the words of American showman and politician P.T. Barnum, “There is scarcely anything that drags a person down like debt.” And, many Americans, millions in fact, know exactly how suffocating debt can be.

Debt affects more than our wallets. It can control many aspects of our mental and physical wellbeing. It can cause us to doubt our self-worth. It can significantly increase our stress. It can even shorten our life spans. More than just the numbers in our bank accounts, debt affects our quality and length of life.

The Effects of Debt on Health

A study published in the journal of Social Science and Medicine found a correlation between debt, lower self-reported health, and higher blood pressure in young adults. But, that’s not all. Financial stress can have a mental and emotional, as well as physical, impact.

According to Dr. Thomas Richardson in the Clinical Psychology Review, debt and mental health issues are highly correlative. Individuals with severe debt are much more likely to develop a mental disorder, depression, alcoholism, drug dependence, neurotic disorders, and attempt or even complete suicide. In fact, more than 25 percent of people with a mental health problem were in debt and at a heightened risk for depression, substance use disorders, and suicide.

Debt doesn’t necessarily cause mental health issues. The relationship between debt and mental health disorders works both ways. Dr. Richardson notes that while the stress of debt and poverty may cause or exacerbate mental health issues, pre-existing mental illness may also exacerbate debt, contributing to erratic employment habits and compulsive spending. So, one isn’t a prerequisite or direct cause of the other, but they are complexly related for millions of Americans, often exacerbating already overwhelming issues.

Debt affects more than our health; it influences our relationships and family, too. According to Psychology Today, couples who argue over finances on a weekly basis were 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who argued only a few times per month. Financial stress is rarely contained just to parents within a family; kids often experience and even internalize the stress of not having enough to make ends meet.

Money may not buy happiness, but debt may prevent us from attaining it at all.

That’s because debt isn’t simply a lack of money. Being in debt can often feel like walking up the wrong escalator—most things seem to be moving against you. One day, things are going fine. The next, the timing belt in your car fails and you can’t get to work. And, it’s going to cost you north of $1,500. If you don’t have a rainy-day fund, you may need to take out a loan or incur credit card debt at considerable interest. And, digging yourself out of that hole can take an abysmally long time.

The stress of falling behind on bills or making the choice between car payments and groceries can drag you down into the nearly inescapable cycle of poverty – affecting your health, relationships, and quality of life.

Finding Financial Freedom

It isn’t a pretty picture. The mental health conditions caused by the stress of debt and poverty can often circle back and worsen our already crippling debt. Walking against the debt escalator may seem to be a futile exercise. Those in debt with poor credit cannot depend upon standard lending that wealthier Americans take for granted. Instead, they rely on costly, predatory lending mechanisms and, before they know it, they may be firmly entrenched in the cycle of poverty.

Eight in ten Americans have debt, and while the stress of debt can feel isolating, for individuals who want to learn the skills to escape from debt and never return, there are organizations out there who can help. Stand Together Foundation Catalyst dfree® has offered financial education, empowerment, and personal responsibility classes to over 30,000 individuals looking to break out of debt and poverty. Started in 2005 by Reverend Dr. DeForest Soaries, Jr., dfree® guides its clients through support groups, educational activities, and motivational initiatives using a wide range of resources and content, including workbooks, leader certification materials, campaigns and events, videos and podcasts, and more. The dfree® curriculum helps individuals and couples identify the psychological, spiritual, and emotional factors contributing to their debt, and provides practical solutions to help find and maintain financial freedom.

For the many who have been managed and eliminated their debt through programs like dfree®, they know that it’s more than just maintaining one’s finances. Financial empowerment is the key to securing a successful future and, in the words of dfree®’s philosophy, creates ripple effects that will change communities across America in a profoundly positive way.

That’s why Stand Together Foundation is working with Catalysts who understand debt and its intricacies — and who are working to fight it, helping American communities along a path of self-transformation. Together, we can fight personal debt. And together, we can break the cycle of poverty.