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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Uncertain financial futures are taking a toll on our mental health. We look at the link in this series kickoff for Financial Literacy Month.

Everyone has a money complex. And it’s a mindset that may be intensely volatile — suddenly flaring up to overpower all else — or cool and calculated like an uninterrupted stream of data points. Contemporary psychologists tell us that beliefs about money develop mostly in adolescence — they take shape around the examples offered by those who raised us and bear on our financial present. At a time when the cost of living is at an all-time high, it’s worth asking: Is your money mindset still working for you?

Many of us live in a different financial situation than we did growing up, but nothing puts our money scripts to the test like the turbulence of new responsibilities and unexpected changes. Of course, we can’t simply wish our way out of an affordability crisis. The high cost of living has added a very real burden to our food, housing, health, and mental health expenses, particularly for communities that experience health and social inequities. These include rural and remote, newcomer, racialized, and 2SLGBTQI+ communities; people experiencing precarious work and housing; individuals with disabilities or serious mental illness; single parents, unpaid caregivers, and others. And there is an interconnected relationship between financial and food insecurity, housing unaffordability and our mental health and well-being.

The connection
When financial stress replaces stability, it can dash the futures we imagined for ourselves. Summertime polling from Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) found that financial stressors are greatly impacting the mental health and well-being of people in Canada. In the study, conducted online with 3,819 adults, 39 per cent said economic issues were affecting their mental health, and 41 per cent who were going through financial challenges reported having had thoughts of suicide.

The number of respondents who paid out of pocket for mental health services due to insufficient benefits coverage also rose from 23 per cent in May to 30 per cent in August. As well, 29 per cent said an inability to pay was why they didn’t access mental health care despite needing it, an 11 per cent increase from the previous MHRC polls.

Election issue
Given these findings, it’s hardly surprising that affordability is shaping up to be a major election issue in Canada. After all, no matter what your specific circumstances are, it’s likely to affect your life. To delve into its impacts on mental health, we spoke to financial planner Natasha Knox, principal of Alaphia Financial Wellness in Vancouver. Knox serves on the board of directors of the Financial Therapy Association, a member organization comprising financial and mental health professionals that integrate cognitive, behavioural, relational, and financial aspects of well-being. Knox uses various strategies to help her clients uncover their own internal narratives and the needs they are trying to fulfil. For instance, asking questions such as, “If you could explain your current situation to a younger version of yourself, how would you describe the way you got here?”

Natasha Knox

Natasha Knox

In different ways, her clients’ answers bring out their money scripts. Among the most common are money status (equating self-worth with net worth), money focus (seeing money as the true key to happiness over other life factors), money vigilance (constant planning that may lead to security and/or anxiety), and money avoidance (the belief that money is bad, the confirmation of which may lead to sabotaging one’s financial future).

Whether you recognize one or more of these scripts in yourself or other people, we are all affected by the influence of money and economic life — no matter how we respond.

Margaret Landry has now come to realize that first-hand. After graduating from Dalhousie University’s film studies program, she had a promising start in the growing East Coast film industry. But after the TV and movie writer’s strike caused many productions to pull out of the province, she found herself with little work. It was as a result of this change that she started re-examining her childhood and current experiences and began feeling a sense of scarcity and avoidance about money.

“I wouldn’t look at the numbers. I would live frugally, but I wasn’t budgeting. I didn’t want to think about how much it costs to live. But in my attempt to suppress it, I found the anxiety seeping into everything I did.” While working through these thoughts, Landry is trying to adapt her career to the changing labour conditions.

Articles on finances often focus on the small cuts people can make — think of all the advice about going without lattes and avocado toasts — but as many point out, such a narrow focus overlooks the various systemic issues that can affect people’s finances.

In terms of tracking and budgeting tactics, which can be found on the internet and via apps, Knox tries not to be prescriptive, since no matter what a client chooses, it needs to suit their situation. “It can be down to the penny or broad categories you track monthly,” she says. “You try stuff to see what sticks because different things work for different people.” Her preferred advice is for clients to stick with it: “Commit for a month, and if you don’t like it, that doesn’t mean you can’t budget; it just means you haven’t yet found the right method that works for you.” Knox notes that the baseline of financial literacy is “all over the map” but points to GetSmarterAboutMoney.ca and the McGill personal finance course as helpful, accessible resources to increase knowledge during Financial Literacy Month or any time of the year.

Learning and looking ahead
After the public-health emergency phase of the pandemic, people in Canada are facing unique economic challenges that are affecting their mental health. The country’s current high cost of living has increased financial insecurity, pressures on food and housing affordability, and income inequality. Inflation and the rising cost of borrowing are also adding up. In 2022, Canada’s average non-mortgage debt reached over $21,000.

Financial security and mental health have always existed in relationship with one another: not only are negative mental health outcomes more prevalent at lower income levels, but mental health problems and illnesses can lead to financial insecurity. In this context, even if you find a budgeting and tracking method that works for you, you may still feel in over your head and need to seek help through a credit counsellor.

Our Money & Mental Health series touches on themes related to housing, the cost of accessing mental health benefits, and financial empowerment, with one story a week in November. Find them at The Catalyst: Conversations on Mental Health, where you can also sign up for our newsletter.

Author: studies humanities and psychology at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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