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The mental illness that can suck your bank account dry in a blink

Kim Cochrane didn’t think twice about giving away a car, an antique grand piano and lending thousands of dollars to friends.

While she knows she can’t really afford it, it’s a symptom of a mental health condition she’s lived with for more than 25 years.

If you live with bipolar disorder or are close to someone who does, it can be very difficult to manage your finances.

But there are a few things you can do to gain some control over your money.

What is bipolar disorder and how does it hurt your finances?

You may have heard of bipolar disorder in the media recently — Kim Kardashian recently revealed that her husband Kanye West, who had been attracting headlines for his recent behaviour, suffers from bipolar.

It’s a mental illness characterised by two different types of episodes, explains Alexis Whitton, a psychologist and bipolar researcher with the Black Dog Institute.

A woman with dark hair and a long red scarf stands amongst the trees, smiling.
Kim says she’s spent thousands of dollars trying to control her symptoms.(ABC News: Justin Huntsdale)

Firstly, you’ve got manic episodes, which are characterised by elevated energy, agitation and racing thoughts.

“Often people can become very generous — buying gifts for loved ones, donating money to charity. I think the defining feature of spending during a manic episode is simply lack of inhibition.”

Unfortunately, you’re also prone to making bad financial decisions during a depressive episode.

That’s when you can often experience really low moods and feelings of helplessness.

One quick pick-me-up can often be a spending spree, explains Dr Whitton.

“It can be a really vicious cycle, because if someone has spent a lot of money during a manic episode, often the guilt and stress associated with the amount of debt they’ve put themselves in can lead them to feel more depressed, which can lead them to engage in more comfort spending,” she said.

Kim, who lives outside of Wollongong in regional NSW, says she’s spent lots of money trying to control her bipolar symptoms.

At one stage, she was having a psychotic episode and thought she had bugs under her skin.

“I spent thousands of dollars researching, trying every type of medication, cream, soap — whatever I could to fix it,” she said.

And then there was the time when they had literally no money in their bank account — not even enough to buy a coffee.

“Neither of us had the cash to pay for it,” recalled Ray, Kim’s partner of 37 years.

“We went to the ATM and there was no money in there either. That was on the embarrassing side.”

Need help? Try a conversation first

If you’re suffering from bipolar disorder and really feeling the effects on your finances, you could try reaching out to someone as a first step.

If you’re trying to help someone you care about in your life, try to figure out a contingency plan so that person can’t blow all their cash in one go, advises Dr Whitton.

A man stands over a plant with his shovel, while a woman crouches on the ground in front of him.
Kim, pictured here with her husband Ray, says she’s experienced shame and embarrassment as she lives with bipolar disorder.(ABC News: Justin Huntsdale)

“It needs to be done in a sensitive way and it really needs to be done when the person is well,” she said.

“Family and friends can signal to the person that it’s OK to talk about this and they can help them find ways to manage it.”.

Another important step is to help the person manage their symptoms and the range of emotions that lead to the desire to impulse-spend or comfort-spend.

“So figuring out how to maintain a semblance of healthy routine which involves enough sleep, exercise and social contact is going to be critical to reducing the emotions that drive poor financial decision-making.”

Try to keep a spending diary

Tracey Grinter, a financial counsellor with Anglicare Victoria, says more than a third of her clients have a mental health condition.

She asks her clients to keep a spending diary for a full pay period (that’s just a list of everything they spend during a certain period of time).

“It often makes people stop and think about the kind of spending they’re doing. We ask them to identify if it’s a need or a want,” she said.

Setting boundaries with spending

It’s been trial and error for Kim and Ray over the years, but they’ve realised it’s all about impulse control.

For many years they lived on one teacher’s wage, and now are both retired.

One of the most helpful strategies has been to have a daily limit on the money they can withdraw or transfer on their EFTPOS card.

“We have a general account with several thousand dollars and the rest of our money in another account,” explained Ray.

“Money has to be transferred from one to the other and the hope is that by going through the process of transferring the money she’s given pause to consider what she’s doing.”

Dr Whitton also advises her clients to limit lines of credit and loans and switch off one-click payments (particularly important for online shopping).

If someone frequently accesses payday loans, they can self-exclude from accessing them, explains Ms Grinter.

“They can write to the payday lenders in their area and say they don’t want to access a payday loan, [or] if they apply they don’t want to be provided with one,” she said.

“The final thing we really encourage people to do is set up regular payments for essential services, making sure their rent, utilities and health expenses are paid for first so they’re not at risk of being disconnected or becoming homeless.”

Handing over control

At one stage, Ray was forced to take financial guardianship out.

Basically, that means Kim appointed him to be her financial manager to make all of those decisions for her. It’s an option when someone deems themselves incapable of making those decisions themselves.

“That was OK because everything was in my name, but in functional terms, she could still use a cash card, still use PayPal — she knew the passwords,” Ray recalled.

“There was no way around that unless we change the passwords and isolated her and that would have damaged her self-esteem enormously.”

Kim remembers that time well.

“I felt quite disempowered by the whole thing,” she added.

But taking out guardianship is an extreme measure, Dr Whitton says.

“Those sorts of decisions need to be made collaboratively with the person, the care team and they need to reviewed frequently,” she said.

“It shouldn’t be the case that somebody is stripped of financial autonomy for their whole life.”

This article contains general information only. It should not be relied on as financial advice.

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