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Exclusive: Money matters – Are you really depressed or just broke?

Common stereotype in Kenya has it that some people, especially the youth, who tend to claim they are depressed are probably just sad and worried because they have no cash to finance lavish lifestyles.

This has been difficult to achieve in recent times. The past few years have been financially challenging for most Kenyans.

With soaring inflation influenced by external factors such as global supply chain disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, shortages of goods such as petroleum, maize and wheat products have led to their higher demand at historically costlier prices.

Internally, Kenya’s inflation was also influenced by the recent 2022 General Election, tough economic policies such as changes in bank interest rates and subsidies measures, multinational companies exiting the country as well as the increment of existing taxes by almost 100 per cent while introducing new taxes on goods and services.

Since 2020, Kenyans have continued struggling to make ends meet in a harsh economic environment with low unemployment rates. This has led to several people enduring financial instability.

Studies have shown that financial stressors can significantly increase the risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, and substance abuse disorders.

In the most extreme cases, some people may even contemplate suicidal thoughts when they feel trapped and unable to see a way out of their financial problems.

Also read: How burnout is impacting women’s finances now, more than ever

To understand how one can determine if they are truly depressed or simply sad and stressed from being temporarily broke and stuck in a rut, Nairobi News spoke to counselling psychologist, Dr Venus Kyengo.

“In layman’s terms, depression is like getting into a hole. You are not normal when you are below the surface. It is like a pothole. When you are in that state, you have low moods, no motivation or will power, some people lack sleep and appetite,” Dr Kyengo says.

She explains that depression has its own severity when you look at the index.

“We normally have a measuring scale whenever we are assessing patients. When we talk about depression, there is mild, severe or chronic depression,” she says.

She explains that when it comes to finances, a normal financial worry has its own limits but when a financial issue makes you lack sleep or prevents you from doing normal chores, then that is a worry.

“Anything that is on the extremities such as normal depression or anxiety that makes you think lower to a place of chronic depression, then it means at that point in time, we are dealing with a situation that needs the attention of an expert or professional,” Dr Kyengo says.

“A normal financial worry should be able to have normal symptoms within the scale of ‘I’m human, I’m worried, how am I going to sort this issue out’  but when it gets to ‘I am so unable, I cannot do it’ you feel defeated or there is no use of you being around, then we are talking about a serious issue,” she further explains.

Dr Kyengo also points out that people dealing with financial anxiety and stress adopt coping mechanisms that end up making them dig deeper financial holes.

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Some people begin self medicating by indulging in alcoholism, drug abuse and abusing sleeping tablets in order to make themselves heal.

“They could be feeling very low but they go consume alcohol because it makes them upbeat and gives them the façade to cover the reality of the matter. Basically, this is because one is trying to avoid confronting the issue on the table and that is ‘I have financial challenges.”

She says some of the coping mechanisms people will use is avoidance and where it comes to issues of debt.

“You find that when you look for this person, you will not find them. They will never answer your call or reply to your messages because they are avoiding you,” says Dr Kyengo.

“Other addictions will include someone delving so much into religious activities and see God as the ultimate miracle worker, which is okay. However, when it comes to fanaticism whereby everything is answered by ‘God will do it’, then there is a problem. Instead of them getting the muscle to be able to juggle through the financial issue, they now use other ways of evading. One then ends up in the deep waters where they expose themselves.”

Other people hand their financial deficits by overborrowing.  They borrow Peter to pay Paul. They borrow to repay elsewhere as a way of guarding their character and dealing with the root cause of the problem.

However, there are therapies and techniques that people struggling with financial instability can use to guard and navigate their mental health.

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The first one is seeing a financial coach who can help them “rediscover themselves in terms of their character traits when it comes to dealing with finances.”

“There are people who are grouped as the spenders, there are the misers and everyone else. Financial coaching will help one identify your habits as a person, and then see the triggers, especially for those who find themselves in various challenges when it comes to handling money. A financial coach is able to assess you and help you by expanding your insight when it comes to how you handle your finances. We work with goals. Coaching is about vision, planning and execution,” says Dr Kyengo.

The other other remedy is psychological therapy. This, according to Dr Kyengo, entails establishing why are you in this hole? Why is it that you cannot have control? Does it mean you suffer from various character flaws?

“Basic psychological therapy itself is also useful because you are able to understand yourself, grow, follow your path and able to work on the things that need to be worked on,” says Dr Kyengo.

She points out that mentorship and group therapies as some of the techniques people with financial instability can undergo to protect their mental health.

“Mentorship is when you walk with people who have already gone through what you are experiencing; and they were able to come out of it successfully. They hold your hand, they are able to relate with you at any given time. You are able to refer from them like a reference book in a library whereby you are able to ask questions and they are able to hold your hand so that you don’t find yourself in the wrong space,” explains Dr Kyengo.

“We also have group therapies where they are able to sit down and discuss their struggles with finances and are able to lift and learn from each other. These support groups work because it boils down to accountability.”