Debt and Mental Health

Mental health needs to be a focus in high schools and in society.

Tragedy and trigger

Yesterday,  a message was sent out to staff at our school reminding us that we had lost a student exactly one year ago. It had been a suicide, and the day, though carved into my memory, was set apart from time in my mind. I had not remembered the date. But when I read the reminder – late in the afternoon – I realized that although I hadn’t been consciously aware of the day’s sad significance, I had been strongly impacted by it.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had confronted a student for not being in class, and her fragility had taken me aback. I was accustomed to attitude from this girl, and I had braced myself before approaching her. Instead, she responded with brokenness, and I was so unprepared for it that I didn’t soften the firm line I had drawn. I felt no peace after she had gone. I briefly consulted someone who was able to tell me that this student was in a particularly vulnerable state. Towards the beginning of the next period, I was free to go to her class to check in with her.

When she first saw me from her desk, her eyes flashed fierce, defensive, and quickly turned away, but she mustered some composure and came out to the hall to speak with me. “When I saw you in the library and told you to go to class, it was clear that you were upset. I wasn’t expecting that,” I started. Defense was receding from her eyes. She was listening. “I didn’t clue in . . .” The words got caught in my throat. What was this? Tears were welling! The student, with wide-eyed surprise, eagerly assured me that she was fine. “Give me a minute,” I said, hoping to muster some composure myself. But it wasn’t going to happen, so I muddled on in my own brokenness. “Nothing is more important to me, if you’re having a rough time, than to know that you’ll be OK. I should have let you stay. If there’s ever a next time, I’ll be smarter.” By this time, the girl was bursting with compassion. “Come on – bring it in!” she said warmly, and she hugged me – told me I was “a nice lady”, and thanked me for going out of my way to apologize. She went back to class with a big smile. And I went to the nearest staff washroom to drain my tears.

There was no hope for my eyes. They were red and puffy, and I went back to my office rather self-consciously. I couldn’t account for my emotional excess. Was I losing it? I was glad and relieved to have set things right with the student, but I had certainly not meant for it to be so dramatic. It was only after this tearful episode that I read the reminder message of the student we had lost. Even for those of us who hadn’t known him, it was a shattering event. A year later, that raw emotion was triggered again – in my case, even without a conscious awareness of the date. My “emotional excess” made sense now. There had been an urgency in my desire to respect and foster the mental health of the girl I had upset.

Debt depression

The conversation surrounding mental health is more open now than I would ever have thought possible. In the case of depression, although huge areas of uncertainty remain, specific symptoms have become recognized, and to the extent that people feel safe enough to acknowledge these in themselves, there is hope. Treatment, though imperfect – whether medical, cognitive, or behavioural – is widely available.

Financial distress, of which debt is almost always a part, can bring on depression. And since money stress exacerbates other stress points – in areas such as physical health and relationships – it can all blur together in a vague mass of awfulness. After a time, the semblance of permanence can develop, allowing hopelessness to set in. And despair is a dangerous tipping point. So if you’re nearing it, take care.

Steering clear of the sinkhole

You are not alone in your financial distress. It is a widely experienced phenomenon, but since our culture – though opening up in many ways – still imposes a taboo on discussions relating to troubles in personal finance, most people with money stress isolate themselves. That just magnifies the problem. Open up. Seek out a friend or a counselor. Contact your local Debtors Anonymous. Read blogs and participate in online discussions about debt-reduction and personal finances. Just getting it out there and tuning in to other people’s experiences offers perspective. Your financial problems are not bigger than you are.

Read a book about debt-reduction or financial management. I can recommend The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, and there are plenty of other titles: Zero Debt, by Lynnette Khalfani-Cox; Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez; Debt-Free Forever, by Gail Vaz Oxlade. Most of us need structure to tackle our money troubles, and different books offer different approaches. Find what speaks to you and what works for you.

The money stress you carry can be addressed effectively. It takes a bit of blind trust and lots of intention to start, but once you’re on the right path, it’s amazing how quickly hope develops and builds, and how thoroughly despair dissipates. Your financial health is a big part of your overall mental health. And nothing is more important, when you’re going through a rough time, than to do what you need to do – so that you’ll be OK.


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