Written by Polly Mackenzie

Lifestyle

Brass in pocket

New figures show that rates of common mental health problems in women increased during the economic downturn. Polly Mackenzie, director of new charity Money and Mental Health, wants to see changes in law, regulation and the financial services industry.

stacks of pound coins
The news last week of a surge in depression and anxiety among young women was deeply troubling. With new figures showing nearly three in every 10 young women suffering with one of these too-common mental health problems, and numbers rising dramatically, it is time for urgent action.

A fifth of young women have self-harmed – up threefold in just seven years. More than 12 per cent screen positive for post-traumatic stress disorder, a sharp rise. One in eight has attempted suicide.

To break the cycle, and stop the escalating mental health crisis among our young women, we need not just to campaign for better-resourced mental health services, but to understand the causes of poor mental health in the first place, and set about preventing these problems from arising.

There are a wide range of theories for what lies beneath the rise in mental health problems in western societies. One academic study, rather dispiritingly, observes that we are increasingly “overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially isolated”, making mental health problems almost inevitable.

Thinking more specifically about the risks young women face, we are probably right to be concerned about the impact of the ‘always-on’ social media environment, changes in sexual expectations born of the increasing availability of pornography, and wider issues of sexual violence. Nearly twice as many women as men have experienced a traumatic event of some kind by the time they are 24. Domestic violence and abuse remain endemic in our society.

But I believe it’s important to consider financial pressure, too. I run a new charity, Money and Mental Health, looking at the deep, damaging links between financial problems and poor mental health. Living with a mental health problem makes it much harder to manage your money – while struggling with bills, debts and financial obligations can trigger or worsen mental health problems.

“Ninety-four per cent of women with mental health problems say their spending increases when they are unwell. Of those people who told us that they ‘comfort spend’ to make themselves feel better, 86 per cent were women.”

It seems pretty clear that the financial and economic woes of the last decade, in particular since the economic crash, are behind some of the increases in anxiety and depression we’re seeing. Unemployment, irregular work, the high cost of housing and stagnant wages all make life stressful and difficult.

This does seem to hurt women more than men. Young women are under significantly more financial pressure than young men, with four in 10 saying they struggle to make their money stretch to the end of the month, compared to fewer than three in 10 young men. One in 10 say they wish they could get more hours at work to increase their income.

And surely some of the reasons women face this sharper financial pressure are social: the obligation to keep up appearances, in particular in the face of idealised social media from both celebrities and friends. There is an inevitable disparity between the lives people feel they are living and those they see portrayed online, and spending money often seems like the only way to bridge that gap.

In our research, we’ve heard from hundreds of young women who find themselves losing control of their finances because of their poor mental health. This isn’t the joyful, absurd world of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, it’s dark, serious, and destructive. Ninety-four per cent of women with mental health problems say their spending increases when they are unwell. Of those people who told us that they ‘comfort spend’ to make themselves feel better, 86 per cent were women.

We hear stories every day of mothers with postnatal depression buying things for their children or partner to help themselves feel like less of a failure. Young women who can only quell the anxiety that keeps them awake by making impulse purchases. Women whose bipolar disorder takes them through ‘manic’ phases where they take on tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt believing they can change the world. One heartbreaking story of a woman so lonely she orders things just for the human contact of seeing a delivery driver at her door.

Just as physical self-harm leaves scars, this kind of financial self-harm leaves a lasting impact on your financial independence, and ability to get by. High debt costs, relationship damage and a bad credit rating can hurt long after your spending is back under control and your mental health is on the mend.

Money and Mental Health is working to help change law, regulation, and the financial services industry to help increase financial and emotional wellbeing. By helping people stay on top of their finances, we hope to be part of the solution to the epidemic of poor mental health that is ruining the lives of too many young women. You can find out more about our work, and join in our research, at our website.

@pollymackenzie

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Written by Polly Mackenzie

Polly Mackenzie is director of Money and Mental Health.