Editor's note: This article originally ran on Consumerism Commentary. It has been reprinted here with permission.
An estimated 9.1 percent of the population in the United States have symptoms of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Depressive illnesses are more than just being sad occasionally. Among people with depression there is a measurable chemical imbalance in their brains and this prevents signals from being transmitted from neuron to neuron correctly. So depression changes how people think, and any obstacle to rational decision-making has significant long-term effects on an individual’s quality of life. As a family’s financial situation is one of the primary concerns of this blog and a primary factor in the quality of one’s life, it stands that depression can cause difficulties with money worth a discussion here.
Although depression is often chronic, it can be triggered by external events or at least correlated to life factors. State of employment is one of these factors. The longer someone is out of work and looking for a job, there is a higher probability of that person showing symptoms of depression. To be certain, the CDC study shows 21.5 percent of unemployed persons in the United States have depression, compared with 6.6 percent of the employed population. Of those unable to work 39.3 percent have depression.
A cycle exists that makes depression particularly dangerous, even when putting aside the increased risk for self-harm, suicide or violent behavior. Frequent or consistent financial problems, stemming from the loss of a job, a divorce, a bankruptcy, health problems or a variety of other reasons, can lead to depression’s chemical imbalances. Those imbalance can prevent what others might consider “clear thinking,” the type of cognitive abilities that might, in other situations, be able to help people improve their finances. And that frustrating mental condition can lead to more financial trouble, keeping the depression persistent.
In some cases, people have the ability to adjust their thinking on their own, and change their circumstances — or at least, change the way they perceive their circumstances. There was an example of this recently in a story on CNN Money:
"When Ray Camp lost his job at a Dell supplier at the height of the recession, it took a toll on his soul and his family. After nearly four years of looking, all he found was 16 hours of work every other week at a company four hours away from his home in Nashville, Tennessee.
"He was crushingly depressed and felt worthless. His sour mood made him difficult to be around, putting a strain on his family. His story is a familiar one among the 3.1 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months
"In February, Camp finally decided he was no longer a failed job applicant but a new retiree. After four years, he had embraced retirement and started collecting social security since he had also turned 62. 'Once I finally got into the mindset that I’d never have to face rejection again, I started to feel 100 percent,' said Camp, who now spends the hours he lost on job searches playing with his grandchildren and mowing his lawn."
For some people with depression, the mindset change is only possible with therapy or medication. In fact, the CDC distinguishes between “major depression” and “other depression,” and it is this “major depression” that is less likely to be overcome through nothing more than a decision to look on the bright side of life.
The Suicide Awareness Voices of Education group explains the differences between a healthy brain and a brain with depression:
"A person living with depression does not always have the same thoughts as a healthy person. This chemical imbalance can lead to the person not understanding the options available to help them relieve their suffering. Many people who suffer from depression report feeling as though they’ve lost the ability to imagine a happy future or remember a happy past. Often they don’t realize they’re suffering from a treatable illness and seeking help may not even enter their mind. Emotions and even physical pain can become unbearable."
It should thus be no surprise that depression can become an obstacle not only to financial independence but to basic financial stability.
Depression affects your performance at your job. Motivation is a casualty of depression, so this affects how you work, if you do happen to have a job. Motivation is crucial for performing when you’re expected to perform at your job. As depression goes untreated, it may be difficult to hold onto that job.
Depression affects your spending. With depression, people may seek behaviors that heighten their sense of pleasure to counteract the general depressive moods. One method of self-therapy involves spending money. Buying things and experience can create a high feeling that masks emotional pain, at least temporarily. “Retail therapy” is a common type of self-medication, so to speak. And the temporary feeling of satisfaction gained from buying a present is more powerful than the reasoning and logic behind the idea of spending only what you can afford.
Depression can increase debt. From spending more than you earn in order to feel good to the lack of an expectation of feeling good when paying off debt, depression can lead to a larger portion of one’s life spent in debt or accruing new debt. Debt severely limits your options in life, and when in combination with unemployment, it can leave you with nothing over the long-term.
Treating depression can be expensive. Stories like the one in CNN Money about someone overcoming depression on his or her own are not the norm. Dealing with major depression requires professional help, and doctors are not cheap. Health insurance comes in handy when paying for psychologist visits or medication, but many with depression are not working. Until the Affordable Care Act, citizens in the United States have typically relied on employer assistance to subsidize the expense of health care, but the ACA may be ushering in a new era in which individuals manage their own health care insurance with the potential for subsidies from other taxpayers. Regardless, treatment is expensive and those needing the treatment may not be in the best position to afford the help they need. Thus, they don’t get the help, and depression and its financial effects continue.
I think the best thing that those of us without depression can do is to learn to be somewhat empathetic toward those who do. We, who are often too smart for our own good, expect people to be able to make rational decisions about their lives, and I’ve seen many people get frustrated when people in their lives do not act in responsible ways with their finances. We want to believe in personal responsibility and accountability, where good results come about from hard work and good decision-making, and where people have the capability of improving their lives. We want people to be able to take action. We want people to control the way they react to certain situations.
We want people to "choose happy."
But depression is one of many things that prevent people from seeing these “truths” that we want so much to share with the world.
It took me a long time, but I now live under the philosophy that happiness isn’t something that needs to be sought, it’s just a choice. I can always choose how I react to any situation in which I find myself. But every once in a while I still have to remind myself that this is not a choice everyone is free to make at every moment. The ability to make a choice rests on the brain’s ability to make neurological connections and that ability can be impaired.
Luke Landes founded Consumerism Commentary in 2003 and has been building online communities since 1990. Luke has contributed to PC World Magazine, US News, Forbes, and other publications.