Hello, dear ones! I’m hoping landing here will provide you with a place to rest and some much needed encouragement to take on your way.
Sometimes in therapy there are themes that arise across sessions. It tends to remind us that we may handle situations differently or perceive them differently, but, as humans, we have a lot in common. Especially our struggles.  Today we are going to discuss financial stress.

A theme that’s been coming up more and more recently is how financial instability affects mental health. For many people, their depression and anxiety are worsened by money worries. We also know that people who live in poverty are more susceptible to mental illness and it can actually change the physiology (a function of the brain). This leads to generational disadvantages in how employable (and therefore financially stable) we are and our kids become.

The struggle is complex

Financial struggles are complex. Not only do we have to deal with the stress of being unsure of how we’re going to make rent or car payments, or grocery bills, there’s shame underneath for many of us. We feel like if we’re not well off, we’re not enough. As if there’s something fundamentally wrong with us and that we aren’t enough if we don’t have the mystical “enough”.

And we need to delineate the difference between living in poverty, worrying about buying groceries and worrying that you’re not going to be able to pay for your kid(s) to go to college. While both situations can feel intense and scary, there is a large difference between these two situations. Sometimes a little perspective can be helpful in the latter case: many many many students don’t have their parents pay for their college in full (there’s one writing this blog ) who do just fine provided they choose a career path that will allow them to repay their loans and they get lucky enough to land a job in that field. If that doesn’t seem plausible, there are certainly ways to make a meaningful career without accruing huge college debt.

When we’re struggling to feed the family, the stress is more immediate. Again, both situations can make us lose sleep and feel constant pressure and anxiety, when we’re worried about needs/wants that are more long-term and are less essential to survival, changing our thinking can help us whereas that helps a little less when we’re trying to meet basic needs.

Unhelpful thinking

That being said, even if you’re worried about keeping the lights on and not getting sued for medical bills, unhelpful thinking can make it even worse. We often get bogged down by “shoulds”. I’ve seen several men at or approaching middle age who are really depressed because their internal set of rules say the following unhelpful things:

  • If I am good, life will turn out well. Eventually I will earn more and more money and I will be able to provide comfortably for my family. (This is unhelpful and untrue because hard-working and good folx get laid off or have a hard time finding work, too, and being good does not guarantee a comfortable life. Additionally, we’re living in a world where one income does not support a whole family most of the time.)
  • If I were a good person, I’d be earning enough.
  • There is something fundamentally wrong with me if I can’t provide enough income.

How to navigate

When our view of the world is terribly shaken by our experience (i.e.: we find out that the world does not function exclusively on a “reward hard work” principle and there are, in fact, people who are not as morally awesome as you are earning more and struggling less), we can get very depressed. It feels as though nothing makes sense anymore. The guiding principle of our life no longer holds true for us and we have to figure out how to navigate in uncertainty. Working with someone trained in CBT can help challenge thoughts that are making financial insecurity even harder.

That being said, we need to recognize systemic issues (issues that are not an individual’s fault but instead are built into the way our society works and therefore affects a lot of people unfairly). It is unethical, unfair, and, quite plainly, ridiculous to blame financial struggles solely on the person experiencing them when there are so many factors at play. If that “should” is playing over and over in your head (i.e.: “If I were just better or good enough, I wouldn’t be having these issues”), do your best to shut it down every time it pops up. You are good enough. You are whole. Your struggles are best examined with loving and non-judgmental problem-solving. Shame won’t change anything. We can’t honestly look for solutions and throw our energy into that until we’re not wasting energy fighting reality and wishing it were different.

Resources to help

That brings us to the next problem: where are the resources? Ok, Kayla, so where’s the solution? You’re right. There are a LOT of financial problems that don’t have a good solution. Childcare is expensive and it often means that moms are better off staying home with their kids than paying for daycare but that also means the house has to exist on one-income. Not everyone has parents or siblings or neighbors who are willing to babysit for free or cheap.

I want to walk a gentle line here. Blaming those who are struggling and suggesting “just don’t buy iced coffees!” can be absolutely as stupid and judgmental and harmful as saying “don’t worry” to someone with anxiety. That being said, you might be surprised by the little things that can add up. You can look for more ways to add income: I know people who sew, crochet, paint, use a Cricut, etc. to add a little more income.

While I haven’t figured it out, there are people who save a remarkable amount of money with couponing. Shop at second-hand stores (it’s better for the Earth, anyway). Meal planning can help- beans are a super cheap protein. Food banks can be super helpful. My father used to work with one that always had fresh fruits and veggies available.

Here are some solid resources I know of in the Metro-Detroit area:

  • Call 2-1-1 (just like 9-1-1 no area code or anything). It’s a nationwide resource brokerage line. They can give you numbers to local food banks and other resources (such as help with utilities).
  • Bountiful Harvest provides a food pantry, resale shop, and a free Saturday Morning breakfast, in addition to other services: https://www.bountifulharvest-mi.org/programs.html.
  • Many communities have churches that offer a once a week free dinner for those in need. When I worked in Oxford, MI, there were enough churches in the area that offered dinners that at least 3 days a week, people could get dinner if they need it.
  • Green Oak Free Methodist in Brighton offers a food bank: https://gofm.church/. This is also a good site but make sure you call the church to see if they still provide the services and hours listed: https://www.foodpantries.org/ci/mi-white_lake
  • Freefood.org is another website that can help with finding food pantries or meals near you but just as above, call ahead to check hours.
  • Don’t be afraid to go to your local DHHS office for help applying for SNAP (food) benefits or health insurance. Those forms can be hard to fill out and the offices are not super welcoming but the benefits can be helpful. Make sure you read all the mail they send you- you need to renew regularly and if you miss a letter, they’ll cut off your benefits.
  • Open Door in Waterford provides food once a month. They also have a resale (second-hand) shop that they sometimes provide vouchers to for household needs: http://opendooroutreachcenter.com/

Long term strategies

The next problem is how to deal with the idea that this can be long term. The strategies I listed above are definitely “survival mode” and staying in this “just-getting-by” mindset can lead to depression. It’s hard to feel like it can ever get better. It’s OK to feel fed-up. It’s okay to have moments of self-pity. Find people who believe you and have empathy. Vote for people who seem to have your interest in mind. It’s so hard not to feel defeated and to feel like you can change things. But we can only do what we can do. Which, if you can do something to support a neighbor who’s struggling, please do so. We have to take care of each other. Meijer has a day where they double the amount that you donate to your local food pantry- check their website for details.

If you’re struggling, hold on. It can get better. We can problem-solve together. But don’t weigh yourself down with shame and unhelpful thinking. You are not the balance in your checking account. You’re so much more. Be well, friends, and I’ll see you next time.

Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.