Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Myvesta UK: Spending Sprees Plunge Mental Health Patients Into Chronic Debt

By Myvesta UK

Excessive Spending - A Common Symptom and A Terrible Curse

Average household debt reached £9,216 (excluding mortgages) in May, according to the charity Credit Action. One in four people with mental health problems is in debt, which means that a staggering 2.5 million people are estimated to be struggling with debts while dealing with illness.

People with mental health problems are three times more likely to be debt-ridden than the general population as personal borrowing reaches record levels in the UK.

The number is likely to be even higher among those with bipolar disorder as over-spending is often part of the condition, according to experts. They warn that financial troubles result in mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and even suicide, and urge lenders, debt collectors and health professionals to be alert as the credit crunch worsens. They advise that
“When you are well, consider putting some safeguards on your money so that you cannot
over spend it when you become high.”

Gail Porter has it. Stephen Fry made a documentary about it. Sophie Anderton, Adam Ant, Russell Brand, Richard Dreyfuss, Kerry Katona and Tony Slattery are all sufferers. And now Britney Spears, too, has bipolar disorder, at least according to the media, in whose unforgiving
glare she has undergone her very public meltdown.

At times, it seems as though bipolar illness is the latest celebrity fad – like wheat intolerance, perhaps. But the apparent spike in celebrity sufferers points to something else: that awareness amongst both clinicians and the public is growing and some of the stigma attached to admitting to mental health problems has begun to diminish.

It has been suggested that having a celebrity's ultra-outgoing personality might dispose someone to bipolar illness. My heart goes out to anyone in the public eye who does have bipolar. It is an
unforgiving illness that makes you behave, both when manic and depressed, in ways that can leave you deeply ashamed when you're in a fit state to reflect on your behaviour.

Bipolar expert, Dr Ronald R Fieve, describes bipolar excessive spending in his book Moodswing like this:
“the lifestyle of the manic depressive who is in a high tends to be a glorious scattering of money”.
This "glorious scattering of money" can take many forms:

  • It may be wild shopping sprees with a self-medicating overtone.
  • It may be crazy investments when our bipolar grandiosity is telling us we can do no wrong.
  • It may be extravagant gifts to family, friends or charity - again arising from manic grandiosity.
  • Or in some very distressing scenarios, it may be spending a fortune on travel, hotels, pornography, prostitution, champagne and lingerie in an extra-marital affair, cybersex, or whatever outlet manic hypersexuality can find.
  • Gambling more than one can afford, for example on horse racing.
It is not always about a spending spree - Patty Duke, Oscar winning actress, did her share of bipolar excessive spending, which she describes candidly in her autobiography - but the best example of how bipolar ruined her relationship with money was Patty asking two strangers she literally met in a car park to become her business managers (no prizes for guessing how that worked out!)

Comedian and writer Stephen Fry, who has bipolar disorder, has called for better understanding about the links between debt and manic depression. He said: "My own bipolar condition has caused me to go on plenty of giddy spending sprees.

"Because so much stigma still surrounds mental health, many people can't get a job, are on the poverty line, and can't get credit from anyone but doorstep lenders charging up to 400 per cent interest."

Negative attitudes towards people with mental distress may be manifested by physical and verbal abuse, problems in the workplace or discrimination by providers of goods and services. Negative attitudes are sometimes evident in the development of government policies on
mental health.

About 1 in 100 people develop this condition at some point in their lives. The majority of these are ordinary, everyday people. It can start at any time during or after the teenage years, and can affect children and the elderly. It affects as many men as women. The rapid cycling form of the illness occurs in about 1 in 6 cases. Bipolar disorder is often not recognised as an illness, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person’s life.

During a manic or high phase, shopping sprees are common. During a low phase, a person may feel so depressed they are unable to leave the house or even answer the phone. Unopened bills pile up. Juggling creditors while trying to recover from an acute phase of bipolar disorder can leave them vulnerable to relapse.

It is not your fault; it is not a character disorder. Neither mania nor depression is a sign of weakness, nor that someone has just given in. It is not something that people are able to just pull themselves out of it.

Chris Fitch, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says financial problems are the result of more than overspending. "People with mental health problems are often on low incomes, experience high unemployment rates, and are reliant on benefits. Borrowing money or not paying the bills can often feel like the only options," he said.

Lenders must tread a fine line between not discriminating against people with mental health problems and protecting vulnerable customers whose spending is out of control as a result of illness. But many people in debt report unhelpful, aggressive responses from lenders, resulting in greater anxiety, stress and more debt.

Joanna Elson of the Money Advice Trust said: "The stress of unmanageable debt has a direct impact on an individual's physical and mental well being.

"The guidelines are voluntary but they are designed to encourage good practice by creditors, debt collection agencies and money advisers working with people with debt and mental health problems."

According to Mind's chief executive, Paul Farmer: "Living with bipolar disorder greatly increases the likelihood of falling into debt. In many cases, people are using credit they cannot afford to repay, which means they become trapped in a spiral of debt that further compounds their mental health problems.

"Banks and other lenders should not be encouraging their customers with bipolar disorder to take out more loans when they are already in lots of debt."

Rachael Watson, 34, a PhD student from Blackburn, has bipolar disorder, and over the past few years has racked debts of £35,000. She bought a £14,000 car, using a credit card, days before she was admitted to hospital for mania. While depressed she shopped for unnecessary clothes and food, in the hope it would make her feel more in control. Unable to face the world when she is depressed, phone calls and letters from the bank go unanswered.

Every time she got into debt, her bank encouraged her to release equity from her home to pay back what she owed. As soon as her debts were cleared, they offered her more credit. She is now being pursued by the bank, which has made her so anxious she has been prescribed extra
medication. The bank phones her up to 10 times a day and sends letters demanding payments she simply cannot afford.

Recovery from bipolar disorder can be hampered by the additional stress and practical problems presented by financial difficulties. Whether it is repairing the damage caused by excessive spending during episodes of 'mania', dealing with loss of earnings as a result of illness or taking steps to prevent future problems, financial health can be as important a factor in returning to wellness as other forms of help, treatment and support.

As well as being a consequence of mental ill health, financial problems can increase the stress of day-to-day life and become a 'trigger' for illness.

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