People with bipolar disorder experience severe mood swings which can last several weeks or months. These include feelings of intense depression and despair, manic feelings of extreme happiness, and mixed moods such as depression with restlessness and overactivity.

The disorder can also lead to impulsive spending sprees, usually during manic episodes. These can extend to cars, holidays and computers, costing thousands of dollars, as irrational decision-making takes hold. It may be wild “self-medicating” shopping sprees, unwise investments, extravagant gifts to family, friends or charity, or spending a fortune on gambling.

People with mental health problems are already more likely to be debt-ridden than the general population, and the number is even higher among those with bipolar disorder. Financial troubles can lead to problems such as stress, anxiety, depression and suicide even among those not officially diagnosed with a mental illness.

Can’t Find Money To Eat

The UK mental health charity Mind says debt is leaving thousands of people with bipolar disorder struggling to find money to eat, stay warm and pay the rent. They wrote a report stating, “People who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder may have particular problems managing their finances. During a manic, or ‘high’ phase, people can feel euphoric, brimming with ambitious schemes or ideas, their confidence excessively high. They may reach financial decisions that seem sensible to them at the time but which, in retrospect, are not. People may spend extravagantly and build up considerable debts.

“After a high phase is over, they are often shocked at what they have done and by the consequences they face. This spirals out of control very quickly and can be very daunting.” During a low phase, the person may feel so depressed they are unable to leave the house or even answer the phone. Unopened bills can pile up.

Comedian and writer Stephen Fry spoke out about his experiences on behalf of the charity Mind. 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 percent interest.”

Mind’s chief executive, Paul Farmer, adds that people with bipolar disorder can become trapped in a spiral of debt that further compounds their mental health problems. He believes that procedures need to be put in place that allow people to protect their finances while still retaining autonomy. Customers with mental health problems should be able to ask their bank to monitor their account for unusual spending patterns, and should be treated appropriately if they miss repayments.

Getting Out of Debt While Bipolar

Mental health professionals can sometimes offer advice and help individuals set a realistic budget. They may be able to help set up a repayment plan to creditors and teach financial management skills.

Friends and family may be able to assist by creating checks and balances to prevent manic spending sprees. If in agreement, they could monitor the individual’s money from a distance. Psychoeducation could also be a good idea. This is teaching people with bipolar disorder about the illness, its treatment and how to recognize triggers which might cause relapse so that early intervention can be sought before a full-blown illness episode occurs. The approach may also be helpful for family members.

In addition, there are support groups available for patients and their family members to help them talk openly about the condition. Studies suggest that the availability of social support increases the chances of employment in patients with bipolar disorder compared with those patients without support.

As always in bipolar disorder, lifestyle decisions such as exercising and eating well can help avoid problems. Keeping regular sleeping patterns is thought to be helpful in preventing episodes, as is avoiding excessive stimulation such as caffeine or stressful social events during the onset of a possible manic episode.

When tempted to make a large purchase, people with bipolar disorder might feel able to alert their spouse, partner or friend in time to discuss the purchase. There may also be the possibility of delayed order processing which needs a second approval at the end of a cooling off period before final confirmation.

Whether it is repairing the damage caused by excessive spending during manic episodes, dealing with loss of earnings as a result of illness, or taking steps to prevent future problems, financial health is a top priority. It can be as important a factor in staying well as any other form of help, treatment and support.

References and Further Reading

In the red: Debt and mental health

Rethink: About Bipolar Disorder

Preventing Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder information from Mayo Clinic

National Alliance on Mental Illness