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  • ‘I maxed out my credit with $3500 of homewares in a manic episode’

    2019 - 09.27

    Melbourne street artist Akemi Ito* once maxed out a credit card in a single day buying $3500 of homewares online.
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    “Back then I could get credit cards,” he says of the time in the late 1990s. “Now my credit history is so appalling I can’t get credit cards.”

    As someone living with bipolar, the 39 year-old’s spending spree arose out of a manic episode. More recently, his manic episodes have led him down the path of borrowing from pay-day lenders charging a monthly interest rate of 34 per cent.

    His manic period might last about three months and is often followed by about five months of depression. While he’s reached championship levels in archery; put his electronics skills to work at Siemens; and initiated pop-up shows of his art in his life, it’s difficult to maintain regular employment. He now lives on a disability support pension.

    “At present I’ve managed to actually save a little money, which is pretty impressive, but I’m well aware that when the next manic phase starts that it will probably disappear fairly quickly and there’s not a lot I can do to stop it,” he says.

    As his experiences show, mental health challenges can make it difficult to manage money.

    SANE Australia psychiatrist and board director Dr Mark Cross says people might also give away their possessions during a manic episode. “I’ve got a couple of patients who in the past have saved and got stuff like laptops and then they just give them away from a sense of largesse and feeling fantastic.”

    That can have knock-on effects for those closest to them, in particular a spouse or partner.

    “It’s a very stressful time because they’ve got joint accounts or they come home to find that their possessions have been given away or they are getting letters weeks later saying their credit cards have been maxed-out or your money is being spent on hire purchase,” says Cross.

    Recurring depression can also impact someone’s ability to handle their financial affairs. Dr Stephen Carbone, research and evaluation leader, Beyond Blue, explains the low mood and loss of interest in usual activities associated with depression are usually accompanied by changes in thinking that make it harder to problem solve or tackle problems: “You often feel your concentration, your focus, your memory, your ability to do those higher-level tasks can be disrupted and those things are important in money management.”

    With one in four Australians expected to face a mental health issue in their lifetime, such challenges are not just experienced by a minority.

    In Britain, the not-for-profit Money and Mental Health Policy Institute this year shed further light on the impact on people’s money management skills based on an extensive review of peer-reviewed academic journal articles. For instance, it found someone with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder might struggle with short-term memory making it hard to remember PINs or the details of a conversation with a financial institution. Someone with borderline personality disorder or psychosis can find it difficult to compare options when selecting financial products.

    It has found people suffering from mental illness often give their PINs to carers placing their finances at potential risk. So it is advocating banks allow carers’ read-only access to accounts; notifications of specific activity on accounts; and authority to make certain decisions on some account transactions or decisions.

    Where people experience recurring mental illness it helps to weather-proof finances.

    “You can start taking more control,” says Cross. For those with bipolar this might take the form of an advance directive that puts in place a process or protocol that is triggered if you begin making erratic withdrawals or spending. “Then the person is protected and the family is protected as well.”

    In one case, he says, someone who is self-employed has agreed not to handle large contracts at that time.

    Technology can lend a helping hand too. This month SANE Australia began a three-month non-clinical trial of an app designed to detect the early onset of mania in 306 people living with bipolar. SANE Australia chief executive Jack Heath explains it passively monitors the way the individual uses their devices and alerts both the individual and, with their consent, a nominated loved one or mental health professional if it detects heightened activity that might be consistent with the onset of a period of mania.

    Carbone advises people experiencing depression to defer major decisions such as changing jobs or making substantial purchases.

    Automating bill payment might lighten the load when someone is prone to experiencing depression, as can being willing to ask a trusted family member or friend for practical help, he says. Seeking the advice of an accredited financial counsellor to plan a budget and tackle any accumulated debt can be another way to be better prepared. “A lot of utility companies and others can make arrangements for people who are experiencing financial distress because of a health condition, including a mental health condition,” he says.

    While income protection insurance could be seen as a way to safeguard earnings capacity, it might not provide the desired safety net. “Some insurance companies make it difficult for people with a history of mental health conditions to get adequate cover,” says Carbone. “They might either impose a higher premium for someone who has got a pre-existing mental health condition. They might put in some exclusions against that condition; they might do both or they might just reject the application altogether.”

    People with significant mental health difficulties might voluntarily place their financial affairs in the hands of the public trustee or guardian or have such arrangements imposed on them, says Carbone. However, he says, some of these simple steps can help prevent the need for such action: “You don’t want to get to that situation where you’re not ultimately going to be in charge of your own affairs…”

    * Akemi Ito is his street artist name. We’ve used this rather than his legal name by request.

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