First the pandemic, and now a cost-of-living crisis – how can Australians best cope with the rising pressures on their mental health?
If left untreated, financial stress can led to long-term mental health concerns, according to clinical psychologist Molly Robbins.
She said 15 percent of Australians aged 16 and over had experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in recent years.
“Financial issues have been more widespread recently due to changing world events including the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ms Robbins said ahead of Mental Health Week 2022, which runs from 8-15 October.
“Experiencing cash-flow issues, being in debt or feeling worried about providing for yourself or your family can cause or contribute to psychological stress,” she added.
“People experiencing financial stress are significantly more likely to experience mental health problems, with almost half of people in problem debt also found to suffer a mental health problem.”
While vulnerable groups may be more significantly impacted by increased costs of living, Ms Robbins said financial stress could affect anyone.
“Most people have financial commitments whether it be rent, mortgages, utilities, personal loan repayments, health expenses and credit cards, and any increase in costs can lead to financial strain,” said Ms Robbins, who is based at the Ramsay Psychology Southport clinic on the Gold Coast.
If not managed, such stress can result in relationship breakdowns, problems with work performance, increased use of alcohol, nicotine or caffeine, unhealthy eating, a reduction in physical activity and self-care – and potentially lead to clinical depression or anxiety disorders.
“Generally, there is a sense of stress and helplessness, overt or subtle, that a lot of individuals have been feeling over this past couple of years, with no clear end in sight,” Ms Robbins said.
So how do you know if you are stressed?
Ms Robbins said there were three main areas to check:
Physical – signs include headaches, muscle soreness in the chest, neck, shoulders and back, upset tummy or changes to digestion, teeth grinding or jaw tightness, not able to relax, fast breathing, needing to take deep breaths to get enough oxygen, lower sex drive, light-headedness and restlessness.
Mental – signs include lack of focus, worry or constant thoughts about bills, jumbled thoughts/blank mind, impatience, forgetfulness, imagining worst-case scenarios (‘we’re going to lose our house’), pessimistic thinking, guilt about spending, constant uncontrolled thoughts.
Behavioural – signs include being irritable with loved ones, drinking or smoking more, significant changes to diet, hyper-focused or excessive activity, taking more sick days from work, not paying bills, avoiding opening mail, social withdrawal, and less attention to appearance and hygiene.
“Learning how to deal with stressful events and manage stress responses is an important step to ensure mental and physical wellbeing, relationship stability, and an overall quality of life,” Ms Robbins said.
“If you notice any signs of financial or psychological stress, you’re best to seek support from professionals regarding your financial situation and health professionals, like your general practitioner (GP), who may recommend a referral to a psychologist.”
Ms Robbins’ tips to help manage financial stress:
- Ask a trusted friend or family member to sit down with you (and your partner) as you come up with an action plan or assist you with seeking advice. Two brains can work better than one.
- Seek support as a couple if these pressures have been impacting on your relationship and leading to conflict or withdrawal. Couple’s therapy may benefit you.
- Create a budget: list all expected weekly and monthly expenses. Prioritise essential items including bills and work out how much money you need to cover these in the short term.
- Review your spending on non-essential items until you are out of the ‘red’. If this process is challenging, your support person may be able to help.
- Investigate options to reduce the amount or frequency of loan repayments temporarily until you are on your feet; many providers will offer payment plan options for those in financial difficulty.
- Consider other money-saving options such as suspending or cancelling ongoing non-essential expenses (e.g. streaming subscriptions), using public transport or car-pooling, eating at home.
- Contact organisations who can offer assistance like Centrelink, your bank, National Debt Helpline, Salvation Army Moneycare, MyBudget, ASIC Moneysmart, your GP or a local psychologist.