Life is hard, and managing your money on that wild ride is complicated. So if most of us find it tough at times, imagine how complex it gets when you’re also managing a chronic illness. A friend of mine lives with Bipolar disorder; a condition that causes extreme mood swings, where lows are depressive and often dangerous, and highs are manic and erratic. If you ever watched the mid-noughties reboot of 90210, you might remember Silver being given the same diagnosis. 

My friend, we’ll call her Kate* for privacy purposes, has kindly shared her experience living with Bipolar disorder, and how it impacts her finances. Please be aware that the following content contains references to serious mental health conditions and is Kate’s* experience only. If you feel the content may be distressing or inflammatory to you, please don’t continue reading. 

An incorrect diagnosis

When I was a teenager I was diagnosed with depression. Then, last year (nine years after the original diagnosis) I was told the original diagnosis was incorrect and I actually suffer from Bipolar 2 – a form of Bipolar Disorder,” explains Kate*.

“Bipolar is characterised by episodes of ‘high’ and ‘low’ moods, and Type 1 and 2 are each characterised by the length and severity of the manic/high episodes experienced by the sufferer,” she continues. 

Individuals diagnosed with Bipolar 1 tend to experience more severe manic episodes (highs) than those with Bipolar 2, however those with Bipolar 2 may experience more severe depressive episodes (lows) than those with Bipolar 1, according to Healthline.

Spending during manic episodes

The highs and lows of Bipolar disorder can result in dramatic and intense shifts in spending habits. Usually presenting during manic episodes, those living with Bipolar often report impulsive spending on expensive luxuries like cars and holidays, to such an extent that they’re left unable to pay for their basic needs like rent and food. 

“If I’m experiencing a manic period I find that I can be quite erratic with my spending and often purchase things that I absolutely don’t need just for the sake of it. I’ll sometimes look at my bank account and be shocked because I have no idea how I spent so much money, and will sometimes have parcels arriving every single day,” Kate* said. “I just buy things without thinking and without considering any financial implications.” 

She continued to explain that sometimes erratic spending would present itself during a depressive episode, but more often than not it would be associated with mania. 

Mental health charity, Mind, reported that people living with Bipolar disorder are substantially more likely to end up in debt. Stephen Fry even concurred that he has struggled with his finances as a result of Bipolar disorder and the stigma that surrounds mental health. 

Kate* added, “One symptom of mania is getting big, grand ideas, and in the past this has ended with me spending a lot of money on really unnecessary items.” She explains that a manic episode once led her to spend $500 on jewellery-making supplies to start a side business, but she ended up stopping the activities shortly later leaving her out of pocket. “I’ve also booked overseas trips that I couldn’t afford, bought expensive electronics and spent sooo [sic] much on clothes that I didn’t need,” she continued. Holidays and tech are among the most popular things purchased during Bipolar related spending sprees, according to research.

The constant fear of unexpected mania

Living with Bipolar presents a perpetual fear of a manic episode and what it could mean financially. “It absolutely affects my financial confidence,” Kate* agreed, explaining that she had recently bought a property with her partner, and worries that a manic episode could mean they’re unable to make repayments. “I worry that it would all be my fault,” she expressed. 

Fear of financial responsibility is also common among people living with Bipolar, which can mean they’re disproportionately represented in the housing market and perhaps in higher earning jobs. Kate* explained that when she’s in a stable period (i.e. not experiencing a manic or depressive episode) she’s “a pretty aggressive saver,” though she wonders if that’s an overcompensation to offset the impacts of manic spending.

Bipolar disorder at work

When it comes to work and career, living with Bipolar can make it tougher to find suitably stable employment. Flexibility, an understanding boss and colleagues, and an environment that isn’t likely to trigger the individual’s specific condition are all somewhat necessary, but often it’s the stigma around mental health that presents an issue. 

For Kate*, she explained that she’s been incredibly lucky in her career to find environments where she can work at her best without Bipolar becoming too much of an issue. “I don’t personally feel as though it’s impacted my career, however that’s just my own experience,” she explained. “I’ve chosen to tell just a few trusted people at work so I have support if I need it.” 

So, Bipolar disorder can have you spending on things you can’t afford, plunging you into debt and impacting experiences at work – but what about the actual cost of living with Bipolar? 

The costs of living with Bipolar disorder

The cost of managing Bipolar disorder will vary from country to country and healthcare system to healthcare system, but in Australia, Kate* explains that there are good and bad elements to the medical side. She also suffers from endometriosis – a debilitating, painful and incurable condition of the female reproductive system – which amplifies the financial responsibility of day-to-day life. 

“The financial burden from both Bipolar and Endometriosis is quite high, and I feel so fortunate that I’m financially stable enough to deal with these costs. Not everybody would be in the same situation as me,” Kate* said. 

“I feel incredibly lucky to have Australia’s public health system,” she explained, noting that she is able to access some free or subsidised support under Australia’s public and private hybrid system. “There is definitely some room for improvement,” however. 

“While psychologist sessions are subsidised [by Medicare], it’s only partial and you can only have 10 per calendar year, so there is still quite a financial responsibility if I want to see my psychologist every 3-4 weeks,” she explained. “In terms of Endometriosis, the public system has been pretty great, but of course there are long waiting periods and you can’t choose your own provider.” 

Despite the generous subsidies available, these are still costs that those without these conditions don’t have to pay for. Even just $500 per year spent managing a mental health condition adds up to $15,000 over thirty years (and $500 is an incredibly conservative amount to spend on a chronic condition.) 

Kate* explains that she is out of pocket anywhere between $90 – $180 per session with a psychologist, who she sees every 3-4 weeks. On top of that, medication (hers isn’t subsidised, but some are) costs $80 per month, a quarterly visit to the GP costs $80 (though there is a rebate for that), and a visit to the psychiatrist about once a year costs a whopping $500 – though thankfully this is heavily subsidised, leaving Kate* only $100 out of pocket. 

That’s as much as $200-300 per month spent managing an already-stressful condition. Kate* expressed she does “worry to an extent” about what would happen if she lost her income and had to rely solely on government support. Not being able to see highly specialised professionals can be incredibly difficult, and have a knock-on effect in other areas of life. 

The path to the point of management can also be a financial burden in itself, with conditions like Bipolar disorder taking years to be correctly diagnosed. “Additional GP sessions and seeing a psychiatrist definitely added a bit more financial strain,” explained Kate*. That’s before the sick days from work and repeated requests for time off for appointments, across the reported six years it takes on average to diagnose Bipolar disorder.

It’s clear from research and conversations with people like Kate* that the world we live in simply isn’t set up to support those living with chronic mental health conditions. The invisible nature of conditions like Bipolar disorder makes it all the more difficult from an inclusion and representation perspective, coupled with the ongoing battle of being ‘believed’ by members of society – read: shitheads. Sick leave is already far too hard to actually access, whether you’ve got a sniffle or you had a panic attack on your way to work – and when your reasoning is a serious, ongoing and never ending mental health condition, the barriers you face are even stronger. 

If you’re struggling with the financial aspect of a mental health condition, Mind Australia has tools and hotlines that may provide support and guidance. 

*Kate’s name is an alias for privacy purposes.