Updated: May 24, 2019
Money and mental health are both taboo topics of conversation. Add them together and you have a discussion that nobody wants to have, but that is the problem we need to be talking about. One million apples was created to teach you about your finances, but we cannot continue to do so without first having a conversation about mental health and money. How we manage our money usually stems from experiences we've had and it can greatly play on our emotions. It is not enough for me to tell you how to make smarter money moves, how to save for retirement, find the perfect side hustle or tell you that you can save more money by not eating avocado toast. It's my responsibility to pull back the curtain and discuss what many people are feeling every day due to their student loan debt and many other money issues.
If you are feeling anxious, depressed, or have contemplated hurting yourself due to money or any other reason for that matter, there is help.
For this post I'm joined by a woman that knows this topic all too well. Her name is Melanie Lockert and she is the founder of the blog and author of the book, Dear Debt. Through her blog, she chronicled her journey out of $81,000 in student loan debt. She's also the cofounder of the Lola Retreat, which helps bold women face their fears, own their dreams, and figure out a plan to be in control of their finances. She is passionate about empowering women, helping others get out of debt and focuses on the intersection of debt and mental health. Every September she organizes a suicide prevention awareness blog tour to help share resources for those struggling with debt and suicide. You can find her at deardebt.com or on social media @deardebtblog.
I met Melanie at the Plutus voices get together, which was one of the most eye opening experiences that I have personally had in the financial industry over the last 11 years. The topic that she brings to the table is extremely, extremely important. So if you read nothing else on this website, please read this today because it is a big deal and we need to be talking about this more.
To listen to her interview click here: The Hard Truth About How Money Affects Your Mental Health
I'd love to know, and I'd love for you to tell us a little bit more about Dear Debt, why you started it and the purpose.
Yeah, so as you mentioned, I'm the founder of the blog, Dear Debt, and also the author of the book, Dear Debt. The blog was really started as a way to chronicle my journey out of $81,000 in student loan debt. For me it was really started because the year before 2012 I had spent every single day feeling depressed, anxious, guilty, and shameful about my debt. You know, I had gone to a private school and amassed all of this debt, a total of $81,000 and even after making payments for several years, I couldn't find a full time job and still had $68,000 left. And I ended up on food stamps making $10 to $12 an hour and just feeling kind of lost and like I was sold this idea that if you just work hard, go to school, that everything would work out. That was not the case for me.
I think a lot of people in my generation can resonate with that and people that are tackling student loan debt. By the end of 2012 I had just kind of reached the end of my rope. I was crying every day. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and I thought, how can I channel this energy into something different? And that's when I discovered personal finance blogs and I had kind of gone down this whole rabbit hole of searching through blogs and becoming really inspired. I realized as much as I liked the blogs, there was something that was missing that was not being talked about. This was really about the mental health aspect of debt. I had felt such crippling depression and anxiety and nobody was talking about that and nobody was talking about the emotional relationship to debt.
So in January, 2013 I created Dear Debt, the name is kind of a rip off of dear John Letters. So we write break up letters to debt and I kind of use that emotional relationship with debt, that mental health and money aspect to start my blog and wrote all these breakup letters to debt and invited other people in the community to do the same. And through that you can just really see different types of relationships that people have with money. You know, some of the letters were extremely heartbreaking, some of them were funny, some of them were interesting, some of them were just so personal. And you know, just made me realize that we all have this emotional relationship with debt that we have to really face first before we tackle all the rest of the stuff. If we're stuck with depression and anxiety, we're not going to be able to really tackle the financial portion of it afterwards.
Your story is one that many people resonate with. It's hard to tell somebody that a lot of people are going through this, it's going to be okay. It doesn't necessarily feel like that when you're the one going through it. You feel so alone, so isolated. As we've talked about, money is a taboo topic. People do not talk about money enough, we don't normalize it enough. So you keep it within a lot of the time or you don't want to tell the people around you. You don't want to feel like you're complaining or that you're the Debbie Downer or being pessimistic about the world and you don't want to be that person. Everyone just exudes success because “that's what we're supposed to do.” Yet at the same time there's a lot going on behind the scenes and if you have a job loss or massive student loan debt, that's a weight on your shoulders, that's very often difficult to discuss with others and I can imagine you felt the same way.
Yeah, I felt so ashamed and never wanted to go out because I didn't have a nice job to tell what I did and I didn't want to tell people that I had a master's degree because I didn't have the success to show for it. I just felt so alone and full of shame, depression and anxiety and it was a very isolating time. I credit my blog for really kind of changing my life and giving me that creative outlet to talk about these things because I certainly felt like I couldn't talk about it with everybody.
It's interesting how we might say I can't talk to my next door neighbor about this, or my friends at the barbecue, but creating a blog for people I've never met before. You know, to hear what's going on and to share this experience. I am assuming the accountability factor of doing that is helpful. So you voiced this to, I don't know, millions of people. There's millions of people out there, but yet we cannot turn to our best friends sometimes and say, I'm having a hard time and I don't know how to mentally handle this. So what you mentioned in your story that people did that back
Yeah. You know, people were really there for me and cheering me on in my community. I really credit the community for being there for me. Then it kind of created this whole community of people who are talking about their mental health and money. In this weird way, I had become this blog full of people talking about mental health issues and money. Towards the end of my first year, after dutifully talking about my debt repayment progress, I looked at the stats on my blog and I had realized that somebody had googled, I want to kill myself because of debt. When I saw that, I just felt so much pain, you know, I felt like there was just an elephant on top of me and it felt like someone punched me in the gut. It just felt like such a visceral reaction that someone would Google that and then find my blog.
I felt like I had an intense responsibility to try to answer this person. This blog had kind of turned into something else by this point where it was kind of my mental health journey, my mental health story, my emotional relationship, and the dear debt letters. This was kind of the next level of emotions and mental health. I thought, oh my goodness, people are really, really struggling with this. So I decided to write a blog post as if I were writing directly to that person. Obviously with blog stats, you don't know who wrote that or where that came from. I thought, how can I contact this person? Obviously I had no way to do that. So I wrote a blog post called “Please Seek Help.” I told the person that debt is not a death sentence and that it's never worth making a permanent move to solve a temporary problem.
I just really tried to instill that debt is never worth losing your life over. It was just so interesting in a bizarre way because as soon as that blog post published the flood gates opened. Since then, literally for the past five plus years I have been getting nonstop emails and comments from people who feel the same way, who feel like they want to end their lives over debt. I have so many people anonymously writing to me saying that when rent is due next month I want to kill myself or I can't support my family anymore or I can't tell anybody this, but I feel like I can't go on and I feel so depressed that I think I'd be better off dead. It's been such a wild journey to be a part of that. I think it just showed me that so many people are going through this and it's not talked about as you mentioned that money is taboo, debt is taboo, and mental health is taboo. I mean people just feel so much in the dark about this and like they can't talk to anybody.
I agree. We need to bring more mental health into the forefront. A lot of us content providers and people in the financial world, we think we're doing helpful things by blogging about the 10 ways to go on vacation on a budget. By the way, love that. I think some of the efforts, the caring, and the love that a lot of people put into their content is just above and beyond. What we're not seeing is the people in the dark, that aren't reaching out. They don't care advice that includes savings over coffee, that doesn't even resonate. And, people like me, for example, I have a financial planning firm, I don't have those people even contacting me because that's like a leap to say, I need help. I'm embarrassed and I have anxiety over this and I have depression over this and all that stuff and then it's going to cost me something to call, you know? There's this huge gap and where do you go and what do you do I think, even with our best intentions, people like us think we're going to put this cheery information out there on the Internet to share with people who are on a podcast or video. However we get it out there, we think we're making a difference but what we're not seeing is this. It's an eye opener and it's scary. I can't even put it into words.
Some of the emails that I get are just so heart wrenching and I respond to every single one. And sometimes I have nice conversations with these people and I can tell that I have deflected some of that energy of that urgency, which makes me feel good. Like, okay, this person is obviously still emailing me back and forth. They feel like they're coming down from the ledge, so to speak. And then sometimes I follow up with people who leave me comments and I never hear from them again. I don't know if they did something or not and I'll never know. It's so scary to have that experience, but I just feel like these people are reaching out. If you're googling, I want to kill myself because of debt, to me that is screaming, I need help. That's screaming for like a last resort. Maybe I'll find some kind of solace here.
I'm not a mental health professional. I'm just a regular person. I experienced my own mental health issues in the past, so I can relate and I'm very passionate about it. Something that I actually didn't mention during the talk last week is that my grandfather died by suicide, and my cousin died by suicide. When I was a teenager, I had my own thoughts with suicides. So it's very, very personal for me. It's something that I'm very passionate about because I've just seen the impact that it's had in my life, my mom's life, and my family's life. People always think, oh, my family is going to be so much better off once I die. That is absolutely not the case. You are going to just hurt your family so much and people just think that they're doing a service for everyone around them when really that's not the case. Then there'd be so many people that would miss you and they would be hurt and sad and your life is worth so much more than debt.
Yeah. You said your net worth has nothing to do with your self worth.
Yeah, not at all. I think that's really what I was grappling with in 2012 when I had no self esteem and was just completely entrenched in depression and anxiety. I just felt like I was on food stamps making $10 to $12 an hour with a master's degree. I still had $68,000 left, had nothing to show for my life. I felt, oh yeah, my self worth is my net worth. I'm so much in the negative that I'm worthless. In our society we define ourselves by our jobs and how successful we are. No wonder I felt like I was worthless, you know? I think we need to change that narrative as well because we should not be defined by our jobs. We should not be defined by how much money we have in the bank. We're still a good person whether we're working or not, whether we have $1 million or not.
Right. So it might not just be you going through it, but when a family member realizes they made a mistake. We all make mistakes, everybody does. Nobody's perfection with every dollar that they have coming in or going out. So we can make an error, a misstep, or whatever you want to call it and that can send you into depression. You might watch your family go through that. What do you do? We talked about how there's resources for people that have alcohol addiction and drug addiction. There's resources for people that have family going through that. But what can we be doing here? You might be watching family going through it as well, what do you do?
Yeah, I think, you know, it's so difficult to watch a family member go through that and it's so personal because obviously you want to be there to support, but sometimes it's also a personal journey. I had so many people try to tell me it's okay, just feel better. It was something that I personally had to go through. I think also knowing that you're supported by the people in your community and by your family can make all the difference in the world. A lot of depression and anxiety I think is this feeling of being alone and feeling like no one would care if you're gone and feeling like people would be better off without you. If you are a family member and you see someone in your family going through that try reaching out to them even if it seems like they don't want you to. Keep reaching out to them, let them know that you love them, that you care for them, that you're there to support.
So with the depression and with the anxiety, it kind of almost gets worse with the loneliness would you say? And then you're internalizing it more and feeling like it's piling up internally, but also at the same time it's nice to have somebody to listen but maybe not try to fix either because I think a lot of people just want to give you the quick fix on how to fix a problem or talk to you about where you went wrong constantly. I don't know if that's necessarily the way to go about it. Sometimes just an ear can be helpful. So you gave us an amazing list of mental health resources for people to reach out to. Do you mind running through some of those?
Yeah. One of my favorite resources is the crisis text line and anyone can text HOME to 741 741 The crisis text line is great because you know if you're going through an emotional crisis you might just be unable to open your mouth and actually speak. You might be hysterically crying where you can't actually talk either and whatever situation you're in you could still talk to someone over text. That's why I really like the crisis text line because no matter what situation you're in, you can still have that opportunity to talk to someone without actually verbalizing your emotions. I also like it because it's open to any kind of crisis. People might be depressed but not quite suicidal and they feel like, oh well I'm not suicidal so I'm not going to call a suicide hotline, that's not for me. The crisis text line is really for anybody in crisis. So if you're going through a divorce and feel like you just don't know how to go on or what to do and you feel like you're in crisis, you can text them. If you're dealing with an abusive boyfriend, you can text them. If you're having a major depressive episode but you're not quite suicidal, you can text them, whatever crisis means to you. You can contact the crisis text line and I think that's great because it encapsulates a number of different emotions. You know, you don't have to be kind of at that last stage of crisis of being suicidal to contact them if you are suicidal.
There is the national suicide hotline, which I definitely recommend that people call and these are trained crisis counselors and they're there to help.
I also recommend project Semicolon. Their whole mission and they have this semi colon as their logo and it's about how your story is not over yet. I think that's really powerful because if we think about ourselves as the authors of our own life, we think, oh I'm done, I can't go on. But if you think of the semicolon connecting two sentences, your story is not over yet and you still have the power to continue to write more stories and projects. Semicolon has a whole community of people who have dealt with similar mental health struggles. They have connections to resources all across the country. I think we just feel like I'm the only one going through this. That's the problem of the taboo around mental health is that we just think we are the only ones going through it because no one talks about it. That could not be further from the truth, there are so many people.
Especially with student loans. How many people reading this right now have student loans and feel like, I don't know what the heck I'm going to do. It's one of the biggest debts out there right now. It happened during the housing crisis and we've seen this happen over and over again. There's public student loan forgiveness and you can get on income repayment plans. There's so many things you can do before ever hurting yourself to get out of these things. There's so many possibilities that are so much better than going that route. You even mentioned debtors anonymous. I had somebody call not that long ago and we talked about self sabotage. I'm not a therapist so we looked for therapists. A lot of the times the decisions we're making aren't, I just spend, that comes from somewhere. If we can get down to some of the matters, there is help and we can pinpoint what that is.
There is such a thing as a financial therapist, which I didn't even know until a few years ago, but I met my friend Amanda Clayman, who is a financial therapist and she's actually been a speaker at Lola retreat, which is my women in money event. She has really gone into some of these money stories that we carry from childhood, from our parents, some of these negative emotions that we feel around money and what they can really tell us about our situation. So I definitely recommend looking into a financial therapist and or a financial social worker as well. A lot of people don't know these exist. I didn't know they existed until a few years ago either. There are these resources out there really at the intersection of behavior, mental health and money. I think we do need to get to the root problem of it.
Just to piggyback on what you said earlier, especially people with student loans. If you have federal student loans and are feeling like you're struggling, an income driven repayment can cap your payments at 10% to 20% of your discretionary income. And if you are near the federal poverty level, your payments could technically be $0 and still be in good standing. So that means that you're not going to default, which means your wages will not be garnished, which means your credit won't get tanked, which means your tax refund won't be intercepted. When you go into denial and you stop paying your student loans, that's when they go into default. They can take a portion of your paycheck, they can take your tax refund. That can be avoided if you have federal student loans by getting an income driven repayment.
From a personal perspective, what would you say we can do as professionals? What can we do to help our friends out, to help our family out? What conversations can we be having?
First of all, I think it's all about reaching out. I think we totally underestimate the power of sending a text. I'm thinking about you. How are you doing? Right? That could make a difference in someone's day, especially if they're secretly battling depression or anxiety. I know when I was dealing with some of my issues, sometimes I would get texts from friends, literally just saying that I'm thinking about you, how are you doing?
Just knowing that someone was thinking about me. It was like, wow, I guess maybe people are thinking about me and it wouldn't just be better if I was gone. Reaching out to people. I think sometimes we get so busy with our schedules and with our own lives that we forget about other people. I totally understand, we're busy, we have a lot going on, we're juggling a lot of different things. Literally one minute, not even a minute to send a text saying, I'm thinking about you. That could potentially make someone's day or save someone's life.
I also think looking at language and looking at different conversations. So if someone's telling you they're depressed or anxious or suicidal, believe them, don't take it as hyperbole. Sometimes we like to use language like, oh, I'm so depressed, I'm so anxious. If someone's telling you that, investigate further, ask more questions, provide resources. A lot of people who are dealing with this, they might give subtle and not so subtle clues of what they're going through. I think being a good friend, being a kind of friend that you would want in that situation. What would you need if you were in that situation and how can you be that for other people?
Every time I meet somebody to talk to them about the podcast or about finances, I learn so much. This topic, like I mentioned before, was one of the biggest eye openers that I've experienced in a very long time. These are taboo topics and we need to bring them into the forefront and normalize them.
If you or anyone you know is depressed or suicidal over money or any reason, please stop everything you're doing and head over to suicidepreventionlifeline.org or you can call them at (800) 273-8255 or send the text HOME to 741741, there is help.
If you need to speak with a fee-only, fiduciary, financial planner please head over to www.wealthofoconfidence.com.