In the Blog
Depression, Debt, and Disparities: How Women’s Finances Affect Their Mental Health
Finances are about far more than one’s standard of living. They mean more than just having the luxury of going out and buying that designer handbag you’ve had your eye on or making sure you’re getting around town in a truly tricked-out ride.
Financial issues are, fundamentally, a matter of social justice. And, increasingly, they’re linked to overall quality of life. Economic disparities are being linked to health disparities. This includes not only inequities in access to and the quality of physical healthcare, but also significant discrepancies in mental health and healthcare.
Research shows the problem is particularly severe for women, and specifically for IBPOC (Indigenous, Black and People of Colour) women, those in the LGBTQ+ community, and those contending with disabilities. Oftentimes the links between financial stress, mental illness, and gender are inextricable and complicated by discrepancies between the rising cost of living and real estate and the refusal of local employers to pay nationally competitive wages; this is especially true in more politically conservative and right-to-work states. Additionally, these issues often reflect broader systemic inequities of gender identity, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ableism.
Finances and Mental Health
The link between money and mental health likely comes as no surprise. After all, finances are a leading cause of stress, and stress is a prime contributor to other mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression.
However, studies show that the connection between financial worries and mental illness may run far deeper than many people realize, especially for women. Those who are facing two or more serious financial worries, for example, are at a significantly higher risk of severe psychological distress such as clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and even symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the face of such persistent anxiety women may withdraw or self-isolate. Guilt, fear, and shame may lead them to withdraw from friends and loved ones, which only worsens the situation. Studies show the time spent with your support system is by far the best relief from stress and anxiety. But when you are facing financial worries socializing is often the last thing you want to do.
The Connection to Gender
It may seem that money matters and its connection to mental health would know no gender but there is mounting evidence to the contrary. Significant gender pay disparities persist, with white women earning on average only 81% of what men in equivalent job roles do. This initial pay discrepancy ratio applies primarily to white women in the U.S., with further reductions for IBPOC and other intersectionalities. For example, invisible disabilities like mental health conditions, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) can also impact the gender pay gap since these types of conditions are often discovered late, if at all. As noted by Marianne Eloise in a recent New York Times Op-Ed this can be particularly true for women and ASD: “Such a late diagnosis might seem unusual, but it isn’t actually that rare — especially for women. For a long time, it was dangerously assumed that we couldn’t even be autistic. Research now shows that autism in women is diagnosed both later than in men and much less often. That doesn’t mean fewer of us are autistic. It just means we’re overlooked.”
Pay inequality not only contributes to significant anxiety about making ends meet from month to month, but it also deprives women of a sense of future security. Pay disparities increase the difficulty women face in saving for large expenses, such as retirement or college tuition. Likewise, the lack of savings means women are living and often raising families with no safety net - nothing to fall back on in the event of an emergency from an illness or injury - leading to medical expenses or missed workdays. Even the most ordinary challenges (such as your car breaking down or a major appliance malfunctioning) can become a crisis when a hefty repair bill makes it impossible to pay your bills for the month.
Unfortunately, too many women are forced to bear the burden of finance-related mental illness alone. That’s because economic stressors are rarely, if ever, recognized as a leading contributor to women’s psychological distress. Instead, the mental healthcare system continues to absorb women into the medical model. The standard traditional healthcare model of Westernized medicine approaches mental illnesses principally as physiological diseases, with little or no consideration of the social factors, including systemic inequalities that give rise to women’s psychological distress.
An Unjust System?
Women’s financial distress and its connection to mental illness are not rooted in the gender pay gap alone. Economic disparities are far more subtle and pervasive. For example, women are more likely than men to experience under-employment. A rate that often increases with other intersectionalities. Meaning that women, particularly IBPOC women, are disproportionately represented in the ranks of part-time, temporary, and contract workers. Thus, they are also less likely to enjoy the benefits usually reserved for full-time employees, from health insurance and retirement plans to paid time off and family and medical leave.
In addition to the relative lack of access to full-time work, women are also woefully underrepresented in management and leadership roles. This dearth of female voices in key decision-making roles only serves to perpetuate the professional and financial inequities all women face, especially as more “masculine” approaches to leadership persist as the supposed “norm.”
Such approaches are often predicated on the idea that women are vulnerable to significant career disruptions due to the possibility that they have, or will want to have, children. From this premise extends the idea that women who become mothers will be less committed to their work, less “loyal” and focused, and less productive. Of course, this ignores the reality that male employees are also often parents.
Even more troubling, it forecloses any opportunity for workplace innovation, such as flexible work options, ranging from flex time to telecommuting opportunities, for those who need or want them. Not only do such rigid models of how and where work can be done limit career opportunities for many women with children, but it also closes the door to financial security for others, such as employees who have chronic illnesses or disabilities.
A Lack of Training
One of the most significant causes of economic disparities for IBPOC women is the relative lack of access to academic training in general and financial education in particular. Black and Hispanic women are far less likely than white men to earn bachelor’s degrees in high-paying STEM fields such as engineering. However, even when they do they often bump up against the proverbial glass ceiling and find themselves being taken less seriously than their male colleagues, paid less, or otherwise funneled into more stereotypically “female” roles.
The status quo of male networks of power in IT and tech industry hubs, such as what has been well-documented in places like Silicon Valley or the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan region, can often make it almost impossible to command respect. The fact that Sheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In” TED talk’s now-famous advice has been so vociferously critiqued is sign enough that the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality only goes so far when you’re taken less seriously than your male colleagues simply by virtue of the fact that you identify as a woman.
Beyond the discrepancies in higher education young people are often reaching adulthood with precious little financial education. Few students graduate high school or even college equipped with an understanding of debt and credit but making a household budget and sticking to it is the gateway to better money management. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it’s a start.
Helping young women learn to take control of their finances can be a profound boost in confidence. When women know how to engage in positive self-talk (and when they have specific financial goals and achievements) to include in these affirmations, not only will their mental health improve, but so will their financial wellbeing.
Financial worries are more than just discomforting. They can also be dangerous, resulting in severe mental health challenges. For women, and particularly for IBPOC and marginalized women, economic disparities may feel almost inescapable. More high schools and colleges need to address the fundamental lack of access to financial education and training by adding foundational requirements on unpacking the status quo and the invisible structures put into place to keep women from accessing the resources needed for reaching the C-suite.
How should U.S. society begin to work towards employment equality, while also considering the difference between equality and equity? What factors must we examine and unpack in order for women to enjoy mental and financial health? Perhaps there needs to be more wide-scale journalistic coverage of corporate accountability (or lack of, thereof) to help prevent blatant gender-based discrimination in the workplace.
Human resource departments should offer improved opportunities for continuing education, research and development, as well as discussing the need for woman-owned venture capital sponsorship and entrepreneurial training. The recent Trump administration’s removal of grant funding for employers who implement diversity and inclusion training is just one example of the many roll-backs of small incremental progress that has been made nation-wide over the past few decades.
With more open discussion, transparency, education, training - as well as increased national support for unionization, diversity, inclusion, and equity - women may eventually begin to more fully enjoy the mental and financial health they deserve. However, as long as individual states are allowed to openly discriminate against women, IBPOC, and other historically disadvantaged groups the lack of a common starting point for eliminating the pay gap will continue.
Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer who loves to talk about good health, balanced life, and better living through self-awareness and grit. She is frequently lost in a mystery podcast or on the hunt for the best mac n cheese in town.