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Is your mental health harming your finances?

by | May 9, 2024

The prevalence of mental health disorders in South Africa is among the highest in the world. This understandably affects the way we manage our money.

Is your mental health harming your finances? South Africans have a unique set of circumstances that makes many of us particularly vulnerable to mental health disorders.

Some of the issues we have to face include intergenerational trauma due to our history, poverty, unemployment, exposure to crime and violence, loadshedding, racism, the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Financial stress also causes mental health issues.

“Our mental health picture is unique because we are only 30 years out of apartheid, which is essentially only one generation of democracy,” notes Sanam Naran, the founder of Conscious Psychology, which specifically addresses culture and intergenerational trauma.

“Intergenerational trauma is often not recognised, and can manifest as imposter syndrome at work, anger and resentment at not being as privileged as your co-workers, having to work harder to ‘prove’ yourself, and experiencing trauma from constant crime,” she says.

“In addition, covert racism through micro-aggressions can have a huge impact on mental health and infiltrate all aspects of an individual’s life, and past traumas can show up in our most intimate relationships.”

For this reason, we have a high burden of conditions such as depression, anxiety, mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and burnout in South Africa, says therapist and wellness coach Dr Siya Mjwara, therapist and founder of Amambelu Wellness.

“Research suggests more than a quarter of our population is depressed – but having worked in the field for close to two decades, I think the true figure is close to around half the population, since many people are reluctant to talk about their mental health challenges,” she says.

Because there is still a stigma attached to mental health, many young professionals prefer unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs, overeating, “retail therapy”, or “trauma dumping” on social media.

“Our entertainment culture encourages this behaviour, and people either won’t or can’t find mental health support, which means many mental health conditions remain undiagnosed and untreated,” Mjwara says.

“In addition, people seek out herbal remedies from sangomas and spiritual healers, but won’t consider chronic medication from a psychiatrist.”

The link between mental health and our finances

The link between mental health and our finances is clear, since the way we deal with finances is often affected by our upbringing, how our parents dealt with money, and how learned behaviour influences our sense of ‘money meaning’, says Naran.

Mjwara agrees. “When people have lived with poverty, they struggle with financial literacy because of their money traumas,” she explains. “They distract themselves to escape feeling of guilt or shame, and make poor financial choices in the process.”

Thabo Qoako, Consumer Financial Education Specialist at Momentum, says you’re more likely to fall victim to poor money decisions when you’re anxious, depressed, or suffer from a mood disorder.

“These decisions will derail any plans you may have set when you were in a better frame of mind,” he notes.

Examples include overspending to improve your mood, struggling to budget or save if you’re depressed and see no future for yourself, or refusing to acknowledge debt.

Being unable to manage money may lead you to feel worthless or a failure, unable to control your own destiny. “Poor choices can lead to into debt, and worrying about the debt will make the problem worse,” says Qoako.

Addressing underlying mental health issues

The first step to solving the problem is recognising and accepting it. “If you’re not aware of the issue, or you’re in denial, there’s little you can do to change the situation,” says Mjwara.

It’s essential to practice self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, since you can’t address underlying issues if you’re weighed down by guilt or shame. Part of the healing process involves therapy or counselling, which can help you to resolve these unpleasant feelings.

“Many people think counselling is unaffordable, but there are some free and affordable resources available in all communities – for example, a community counsellor, a church or mosque leader, or non-profit organisations. In addition, it’s easy to locate help anonymously via the internet on your phone,” Mjwara points out.

She adds that young professionals who consider therapy “expensive” don’t baulk at buying branded clothing or the latest gadgets, while leaving their mental health issues unaddressed.

Fixing your finances

Once you have some therapeutic support, Qoako recommends getting your finances in order.

Consult a professional

Start by consulting a financial professional, such as a money coach or financial adviser, who can potentially prevent you from making poor decisions and help you establish and stick to some good habits.

“Good financial habits will stand you in good stead when you go through a period of mental struggle, and being able to apply those habits rain or shine will reduce the potential for further stress caused by poor money decisions,” says Qoako.

A money coach should be a member of Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA), a professional body for coaches and mentors.

The Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) lists authorised financial service providers on its website, under the ‘FSP Search’ tab.

Learn how to manage your money

Ask family members and loved ones to create a safe, judgement-free space for money conversations, and try to have these conversations when everyone is in a calm state.

Discuss matters such as setting goals, drawing up a family budget, or making lifestyle changes to support you as you deal with financial challenges.

“Managing your finances starts with tracking your spending, setting your financial goals, as well as making budgeting a habit and sticking to it despite all the temptations and peer pressure,” Qoako counsels.

Be gentle with yourself

Understand that healing doesn’t happen overnight – you will need to build up your mental and financial health slowly, with missteps along the way a possibility.

“Lean on your support structure and don’t be distracted by what society expects or social status demands,” Qoako counsels. “Being supported will help you stay grounded and reset your understanding of financial goals.”

Learn to spend thoughtfully

Although we can avoid some triggers in life, such as alcohol and casinos, it’s impossible to escape money. This means befriending it and learning to avoid reckless spending.

“While spending carelessly and getting into debt should be avoided, you can still spend money on things that bring you some joy and mental relief, such as a good book or an outing with a friend,” says Qoako.

Speak to someone about your mental health

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has more than 160 free support groups (both in-person and online). To find out more, visit www.sadag.org, or call their toll-free helpline on 0800 567 567.

Call the South African Federation for Mental Health, for people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities, on 086 558 6909 or 011 781 1852, email info@safmh.org, or visit https://www.safmh.org/introduction-to-safmh/.

LifeLine assists with a range of issues. Visit www.lifelinesa.co.za or call the national counselling line on 0861 322 322, the Stop Gender Violence line on 0800 150 150, or the AIDS helpline on 0800 012 322.

Dr Mjwara is running a course entitled ‘Building from Trauma to Success’ at The Recovery School. For more information, email ask@DrSiya.co.za.

This article first appeared in City Press.

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Maya Fisher-French author of Money Questions Answered

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