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The Connection Between Debt and Depression, with Melanie Lockert

Presented by Wealthsimple

Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.

Is the burden of debt so great that it’s causing you to feel anxious and depressed? Do you feel like life would be better if you could only catch up on your bills? My guest this week understands the connection between debt and depression because she’s lived it. Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer, and founder of the blog and author of the book, Dear Debt. She is passionate about helping others get out of debt and focuses on the intersection of debt and mental health.

In this week’s episode, Melanie and I discuss the connection between debt and depression. As Melanie explains, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and hopeless, when you have a large amount of debt. What Melanie tries to help people realize, is that these days having debt has become the status quo. So, rather than feeling all alone, know that debt is a struggle for most people, and by working to get out of debt, you’re actually breaking the status quo, and moving in a positive direction.

Melanie wants people to remember that having debt is not the end of the world. As Melanie puts it, debt should not be a death sentence. If you don’t pay your bills, you’re not going to die. You won’t go to jail. You’re still alive, and you will get through this.

This episode is timely, in part because January 29th happens to be Bell Let’s Talk Day. While the struggle with depression and other mental health issues is ongoing, it’s good that we take time to recognize the importance of finding help. If your finances are affecting your mental health, or you’re struggling with any type of depression and feeling alone, I encourage you to reach out and talk to someone. Visit Bell Let’s Talk today for resources on where you can find help.

It’s January, which means that the RRSP season is here. Opening an RRSP through our sponsor, Wealthsimple, can get a bigger refund AND help you save on investment fees. MapleMoney readers get $10,000 managed for free by opening a new account, or by transferring their RRSP to Wealthsimple. To open your RRSP, head to Wealthsimple today.

Episode Summary

  • The connection between debt and depression
  • How blogging helped lift Melanie out of depression
  • How mindset can keep you stuck
  • Having debt is the status quo
  • Why therapy can be helpful for anyone
  • Debt should never be a death sentence
Read transcript

Is the burden of debt so great it’s causing you to feel anxious and depressed? Do you feel like life would be better if you could only catch up on your bills? My guest this week understands the connection between debt and depression because she’s lived it. Melanie Lockert is the founder of the blog and author of the book, Dear Debt. She is passionate about helping others get out of debt and focuses on the intersection of debt and mental health which is why she has recently launched a new blog and soon to be podcast called, Mental Health and Wealth.

Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. RSP season is here, which makes it a great time to open an RSP if you haven’t already done so. Our sponsor, Wealthsimple, can help you get a bigger refund and save on investment fees. Not only that, but Maple Money Show readers get $10,000 managed for free by opening a new account or transferring their RSP account to Wealthsimple. To open your Wealthsimple RSP today, head over to maplemoney.com/wealthsimple. Now, let’s chat with Melanie…

Tom: Hi Melanie, welcome to the Maple Money Show.

Melanie: Hey, thanks for having me.

Tom: I’m glad to have you on. I know this is going to sound dark saying it this way, but one of the things I know you for, are these depression and suicide topics. When deciding to cover this topic, I figured I should just get you on the show and we’ll kind of go through it all. So let’s just hop right into it. What is the connection between debt and depression?

Melanie: Well, first of all, I really got interested in this idea of debt and depression based on my own personal experience. As some people might know, I started my blog, Dear Debt, in January 2013 after I had spent pretty much the whole entire year before severely depressed about my student loan debt. I had $60,000 in student loan debt after I graduated from NYU. I had already paid for five years. I had borrowed a total of $81,000. Even though I was making payments, I saw the balance and thought I’d better get a full-time job to pay it back. I couldn’t find a full time job in New York so I ended up moving to Portland. I could only find temp work for $10 or $12 an hour. I ended up on food stamps briefly (here in the States). I just wondered how I was going to be able to pay this back. I felt so much shame that I went to this fancy private school and I couldn’t find a full-time job to pay it back. All of these emotions just hit me. A lot of our self-worth is tied into our work and money so I thought, “I can’t find a full-time job and I’m broke.” For all of 2012 I was just crying, depressed and anxious. I just felt so much tension in my chest and every single day there was this lingering feeling that I owed people money. And when you’re constantly thinking about owing somebody something, you’re not free. Your money is not yours. You just feel kind of trapped especially when you can’t find proper work to pay it back or you feel like you have to do certain work just to pay the bills. It’s depressing. I kind of went through this for a whole year. And then finally I just got sick of myself and decided I couldn’t keep doing this. I just wanted to bash my head against a wall. I was running in circles and nothing was changing. I knew I had to do something different if I wanted different results. So I started my blog, Dear Debt, in January 2013 because I had no choice but to pay these (debts) back if I wanted to change my emotional landscape. They were making me miserable. The only solution I saw was to pay them back. And so I started Dear Debt. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I was going to pay off those debts in four years. Then so many crazy things happened and I paid off the rest of that debt in three years. The blog completely changed my life and helped me get out of that depressive state. Because I had written about my own depression and debt through the blog, more people started finding me through that. That’s how I’ve been kind of linked with this “depression/debt,” because I started talking about it and making it more well-known in the personal finance community. People weren’t really noticing the connection before.

Tom: It’s interesting you mentioned changing your mindset. We had Lacey Langford on the show a couple weeks ago talking about making that change in your mindset. Like you said, you wanted to pay your debt off in four years and once you set that goal and changed the direction you were going, things just starts to fall into place, don’t they?

Melanie: Yes. I think the key is really believing you can pay off student loans—pay off the debt. I remember writing that post and feeling so phony and fake. I didn’t know how the heck I was going to pay back this debt in four years but I just put it out there. At that time, I think I had $57,000 (in debt) and knew I couldn’t pay it off in a year or even two years. But I thought I’d be able to do it in four years if I could boost my income or something. It was definitely stressful for me at the time. I just wanted to put it out there and try to make it happen. It felt so unrealistic at the time, but when you put that in your mind, things start to change. Obviously, you have to put in the work too. I put in a lot of work to make that happen. I had to face a lot of my “money mindset” issues to tackle that. I had to get rid of the belief that student loans are a “good debt.” Or, that everyone has debt. Those beliefs are just going to keep you stuck and complacent so I had to get rid of those ideas and really live a different life and change my money mindset.

Tom: The belief that everyone has debt is interesting because in some ways it seems like everybody does have debt. There are a lot of people that have got student loan debt or credit card debt or they like to spend. Or maybe they bought more of a house than they can actually afford. Do you think a lot of people are just kind of keeping this inside? Are there more people feeling a little bit held down by this like you did?

Melanie: Everyone, for the most part, does have debt. And debt is the status quo. That’s one thing I tell people when they email me saying they’re suicidal about their debt; everyone has debt for the most part. But people aren’t talking about it. Literally, if you pay back your debt, you’re breaking the status quo. If you want to be different and live a different life and not be like everyone else, then this is what you’re going to have to do. But it’s also not a reason to be depressed about and have take your life over. This is what so many people are dealing with but it’s just the way things are. I think because it is so normalized where we’re expected to have a certain lifestyle, especially as we grow older; you’re supposed to have a mortgage, kids, go to a fancy school and have a fancy car—these are cultural and societal expectations of us. We might be conditioned in some ways to believe that we need to have a certain lifestyle. And maybe people aren’t realistic about what they can actually afford. I know here in the States, income has not kept up with inflation at all. And it’s also not completely your fault. Inflation keeps going up like normal but wages have not. So don’t beat yourself up about why it’s hard to make ends meet. I think another trap I see is that people just want to blame each other about spending too much money. Okay, there are people that are spending too much who could actually cut back. But they’re also probably a lot of people that are have credit card debt or student loan debt because that’s the only way they can make ends meet. They’re literally just trying to get by. Like I said, I think this goes back to income not keeping up with inflation. There’s a bigger systemic issue here, too that’s part of the problem. I think a lot of people are in debt, feeling depressed, anxious, and stressed who aren’t really talking about it because money is a taboo topic. And mental health is a taboo topic. That’s exactly why I created my new site, mentalhealthandwealth.com to really kind of tackle that intersection of money and mental health. These two taboos are already not talked about when you put them together. People email me the wildest, most personal things about their debt, depression and mental health. It’s just crazy to think what people are going through.

Tom: Those two things connect better than some people realize. I think money is one of the biggest issues out there. It may be the number one cause of divorce—money issues. They really weigh people down and affect everything in their lives.

Melanie: Totally. This is really technical and nerdy but if you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; food and shelter (and self-actualization at the top) if you’re stuck at that bottom rung, literally just paying for shelter and food because that’s all you can really afford, of course you’re going to be miserable. No one wants to just work and pay bills and die. I think you’ve probably seen the meme that says, “You weren’t born to just pay bills and die.” And you weren’t. If you feel that way or if that’s your current reality, then of course you’re going to be depressed about it.

Tom: I think I started to have that realization early on while I was doing the whole corporate thing. I think I started my blog at this point too. But my paycheck was going 100 percent toward mortgage and food and all that. I wasn’t racking up any additional debt or anything like that so it didn’t seem like a problem. But I didn’t really have savings happening then either. I’ve said on the show a couple of times where I seemed to have lost my 20s, basically, with no savings. It was this constant grind of just working to pay for food and shelter. And that’s not the best feeling.

Melanie: Yes, it just feels like you’re stuck in this loop of not wanting to go to work but needing to go so you can eat and keep paying rent. But you’re miserable so it’s hard to go to work. It’s just this negative feedback loop which is going to keep you trapped in an oppressive mindset. It’s tough and I think a lot of people are dealing with that.

Tom: One thought I had with your situation was you were depressed from the student loan debt. What was your mindset when you were starting school? Was it thinking you were going to get this great job and do that whole corporate thing? And what did you go to school for?

Melanie: This is part of the problem. I have a Bachelors degree in theater and my Masters degree is in performance studies. Performance studies is a really nerdy way of saying it is art history, but for performance. That could be a lot of different things. It could be dance, theater. I have a very specialized focus on theater of the oppressed, which is basically a modality of doing social justice theater to help bring change within communities. It’s using theater as a tool for social change, basically. Before that, I had worked as a nonprofit art director in Los Angeles. I was working with a lot of teaching artists and low-income communities to provide arts programming. I had worked there full-time for years and though I would love to get a Masters degree and continue teaching. Actually, it’s something I don’t talk about that often but I really should because it’s a big part of the story; I really wanted to get my PHD and be an adjunct professor at some point. Halfway through my program I realized academia is not for me. I can’t come here for another five years and be part of this community. It was so difficult for me to go from working with low-income communities and actually directly serving people through the arts and then going to grad school where we’re just stuck in these circular ideas. I love philosophy, I love talking about ideas. It’s fun. But I don’t see the social change of what’s happening in “white ivory tower” as they sometimes call it. I just realized that I didn’t want to be a professor. That’s kind of a big thing as well. There was a reason I went to get my Masters and take on so much stress because I had a vision. Obviously, you need a Masters if you’re going to get a PHD. And before I left for New York, I knew I was tripling my debt. I had a lot of people ask me, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Literally, no one could have told me anything. I wanted to go to my dream school. I’ve always wanted to live in New York. This was my chance. I knew I was tripling the debt load from my undergrad and literally no one could have told me anything. People being stubborn and getting Arts degrees that aren’t worth anything—I totally understand because I’ve been there. I knew no one could have talked me out of it. Because I had a decent nonprofit job before, I had a signal that I could definitely get a nonprofit job afterwards. I was working as a teaching artist in Harlem after I graduated but it was part-time. It was maybe 15 hours a week which was definitely not enough to pay my rent in New York and my student loans so I moved to Portland hoping I would be a bigger fish in a small pond. But I realized it was just a really small pond.

Tom: With no fish at all.

Melanie: And there’s definitely no money in the Arts there. Portland is a very creative city but it doesn’t have the money that L.A. or New York has to the arts. That was another frustrating point because I wasn’t finding anything. I was still working in education with the temp jobs as a study abroad advisor. Once again, it was for low-income communities. But trying to find all this work was difficult. It was a journey from the start; knowing I was taking on all that debt to having a totally different reality afterwards. I think that’s how people get depressed. They have this idea they’re going to get a Masters knowing it’s not in the most lucrative field, but knowing a Masters is worth something (in some kind of job)… I could work in arts administration. I could work teaching. I could work in consulting, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then you have the reality that’s completely different than what you were expecting. When they’re totally different you have this gap where disappointment lays. You think, “I took in all that debt, put in all that time and here I am making $10 an hour with a Masters degree.”

Tom: You mentioned how people are kind of saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?” What was the relationship with your friends and family after the fact? When you’re in debt, on food stamps and everything, what was it like at that point? Were you letting people know? Or we’re there, “I told you so” comments making things worse? How was that?

Melanie: No one really said, I told you so. But I think people politely said, “This was your choice and it’s the reality you’re given right now. But I do believe that things will change, eventually.” My boyfriend at the time and my mom were pretty much the ones I was talking to every day, honestly. They were sick of me by the end of that year, too. So that’s when I decided I needed to stop talking to them about this. I needed to stop thinking this way and I needed to have a creative outlet for this (when I started doing debt). I was also in counseling briefly during that time. I got affordable counseling through the local college. The local college had a Masters level graduate program where their counselors needed clinical hours before they could graduate. So it was $15 a session with a Masters level counselor without certification. Because I was on food stamps I negotiated it down to $5 which was great. I was able to get therapy weekly for $20 a month. The counselors were only one semester away from being certified so that didn’t matter to me. I just needed someone to kind of talk to because I was probably driving everyone around me nuts with my constant depression, anxiety and feeling badly about student loans. I think some people definitely didn’t even want to talk about it with me. Some of my friends said they didn’t want to talk about that with me because it didn’t matter. I think there are two types of people; those with student loans who think, “Okay, big deal. Why do I care about this?” Then there are people (like me) who are so debt-averse saying, “I can’t tell anybody. This makes me sick… I can’t do this…” I didn’t talk to former colleagues and friends because I didn’t want them to know that I was in this horrible place. I was so ashamed. I had this nice nonprofit job. I went to this nice school and now I’m now here. I just felt so ashamed and didn’t want to talk to those people anymore. That’s self-isolating. That’s another way you can increase your depression. You’re self-isolating and not feeling like you can be yourself.

Tom: I think that happens a lot. You mentioned your $5 therapy. I assume you’re very pro-therapy. And I say this as someone that’s never gone to therapy, but I’m kind of warming up to the idea that it’s nice just to have someone to talk to about things in general. But in the case of this episode, money issues.

Melanie: Yes. I’m so pro-therapy. And I honestly think everyone, whether you think you need help or not, should go to therapy. The thing is, when we talk to our friends and our family, they’re inherently biased. They just are. So you need a third party who doesn’t have an agenda for honest feedback for whatever you’re going through in life. In my therapy now, half the time I talk about work or how I reacted in situations. I want to know what she thinks about this and that. She helps me think through different possibilities I wouldn’t have concluded on my own. We’re all kind of conditioned in certain ways with our culture, family and friends. I believe my therapist really helps me think of things in a new way because she’s an outsider that has no relationship to me. She has no agenda. And she can help me see A and B are not my only options. There is C, D, E and F. I have all these other options but the way my mind works, I just wouldn’t have thought about that. So, I am super pro-therapy. I think people should get it (therapy) if they can afford it, even if they’re not in crisis. And especially if you are at the front stages of an issue like depression, anxiety, or grief—definitely start going early because when you’re really deep into it, it’s really hard to untangle yourself and get to a more stable place. I definitely recommend it.

Tom: It’s funny you mentioned talking about work a lot because that’s one of the things that warmed me up to this idea. Someone I know has been seeing a therapist and it’s almost like being “business coached” because it’s working you out of the procrastination that comes with depression and everything. It’s all intertwined. And like you said, given a different idea may light a fire under you a little bit in order to change direction. It’s interesting and I’m seeing the benefits of it. You run the, Suicide Prevention Awareness Blog tour, in September. What led to this? If I remember, you found people were Google searching to find your site, right?

Melanie: Yes. About a year into the blog I started realizing that people were Googling, “I want to kill myself because of debt.” I remember seeing that search term and just thinking this is someone’s call for help, literally, and they’re finding my site. I don’t know what they found but I felt compelled to write a post called, Please Seek Help, as if I were talking to that person telling them that debt is not a death sentence. Making a permanent solution to a temporary problem is not worth it. You are so much more than your net worth. Your self-worth should not be conflated with your net worth. Here in the States, if you don’t pay your debt, you’re not going to go to jail. You’re not going to die. You might get your wages garnished and your credit might tank. And yes, those have some consequences to them, for sure. But it’s not a life threatening thing. I’m not saying people should stop paying their debt. I think you should definitely pay your debt. I’m just saying that for people who are engaged like this as if it were their only option, do what you can to pay it off. But if you can’t pay it off right this moment, you’ll be okay.

Tom: Yes, it’s a struggle but it’s better than the alternatives, for sure. I know in the States there’s a suicide prevention line. Here in Canada, I found it a little messier. I was doing some research before this episode and I did find that Crisis Services Canada has a phone number 1 – 8 3 3 – 4 5 6 – 4 5 6 6. But I also found suicideprevention.ca has an entire directory of different services. If anyone’s feeling like this (or you know someone that is) you can head over to this site to find help. It looks a little more provincially-based but you can certainly find the right thing for your location and situation. In addition to the mindset episode we did with Lacey, I’m glad we did this one to go into the deeper issues that occur when it starts to get a little too negative. So thanks for being on the show. Can you tell people about your website, your blog, your conference, all that?

Melanie: Of course. I’m super happy to be talking about this topic because I really think it needs more light since there is a connection between debt and depression. From my research, I found that people that die by suicide are eight times more likely to have debt. And from the emails that I get, I just see the connection so clearly. My blog is, Dear Debt. Because I’ve had so many emails and blogs, I started a blog tour. As you mentioned, I got my friends together to write about this topic every September. I just realized this is the direction I’m going in whether I want to or not. So, I started mentalhealthandwealth.com. We launched a month ago. There’s going to be a podcast soon called, The Mental Health and Wealth Show, where we talk about grief and finances, student loan debt, depression and motherhood, mental health and a lot of juicy topics. That will be launched soon. I also have a women and money event called, Lola Retreat. I want to empower women to manage their finances because I think that’s a way we can promote feminism and manage our own money. I’m really just passionate about this topic, helping people, and breaking the taboo because if we’re not talking about it then it’s something that can literally just eat us alive. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it and the less scary it is to bring up to other people. And, we can actually work on healing, solutions and not have it be this thing that could be eating us alive and lead to very bad things.

Tom: Thank you very much for being on the show.

Melanie: Thank you.

Thanks, Melanie, for your insight into debt and mental health and the willingness to discuss what can be a difficult topic. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/melanielockert. This episode is timely in part because January 29 happens to be Bell, Let’s Talk Day. The struggle with depression and other mental health issues is ongoing so it’s good we take the time to recognize the importance of seeking help. If your finances are affecting mental health or you’re struggling with any type of depression, feeling alone, I encourage you to reach out and talk to someone. Visit: letstalk.bell.ca/en/get-help for resources on where to get help. Don’t forget to tune in next week as Sandy Yong joins the show to discuss developing healthy and wealthy habits. Visit maplemoney.com/letstalk to be redirected to resources where you can get help today.

Everyone, for the most part, has debt, and debt is the status quo. That’s one thing I tell people when they email me suicidal about their debt…that everyone has debt, but people aren’t talking about it. Literally you paying down your debt is breaking the status quo. - Melanie LockertClick to Tweet

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