I’d like to tell you a story about four people I’ve met, all struggling with their mental health.

The first: She went from miserable working at McDonald’s to utterly depressed working in a call center for a price-gauging pharmaceutical company. She lasted one year before quitting and moving across the country to another side of her family. Her best hope is to take tens of thousands of dollars in college debt, then hopefully find a job that can pay the bills, all while being beholden to the debts she’s taken on to get there. College is the only way to a better life – and guarantees she’ll be a slave to her income forever. She’s back working at another fast food joint, and the wheel goes round and round.

The second: A semi-truck hit her car head-on. She became disabled in a way people can’t see – the kind that takes a skyscraper’s worth of paper to prove and whose settlements don’t pay as much as a broken spine might have. Still, her settlement bought her a house – and yet even without having to pay for a rent/mortgage, she cannot make enough money to scrape by with the limited work she’s able to do. “Stuck” is the word she uses – physically, financially, and emotionally stuck in place.

The third: She struggles to keep a job due to her bipolar disorder. Often her emotional symptoms transcend into physical illnesses, and to top it off, the job she’s tried to keep is another call center – one that poaches people with collection debts, or possibly, more quietly, poaches immigrants. “Trapped,” she calls herself – and she is making suicide attempts a habit now. She cannot see another way to stay sane and afford any kind of life.

Then there’s me. I took ten years to get my college degree as I lapsed between fast food, retail, and call center jobs. Then I had a long period of being hopelessly depressed – the kind where if I could manage to shower that day, I’d take it as a win. Still, I eventually found work I could do from home – a necessity due to social anxiety. I managed to finish my degree only $40,000 in debt. I live in constant fear that depression will hit again in a big way, and that I won’t be able to work anymore.

Suicide rates in the United States, which had fallen in the 1990s, are on the incline again. These stories, though anecdotal, share a connection between hopelessness and finances. They represent people suffering under the weight of financial problems that our country is not even attempting to fix.

I find myself going back to this article often: “Majority of Americans Don’t Have $500 in Savings.”  Poverty – this incessant complex of being trapped in a system that does not meet your basic needs – is rampant in the US as a whole. Often, poverty targets millennials that are unable to save enough for a down payment on a home. We have four times as much student loan debt as our parents’ generation. Our rates of depression are rising more rapidly than other generations. Too often, we can’t afford help.

Typically, the cost of your home or apartment rent is the largest expense you have. I’m tempted to think we could start looking at the cost of real estate to lessen our financial burden – like the Tiny House Movement. But in reality, we can’t convince every family to move into a 400-square-foot home.

Plus, regulations on the cost of an apartment often backfire. As the New York Times reports in their article:

There are, effectively, two rental markets in Manhattan. Roughly half the apartments are under rent regulation, public housing or some other government program. That leaves everyone else to compete for the half with rents determined by the market.

While their article relates to Manhattan, my new home of Asheville shares this crisis. I pay 40% more in rent here than I did in my hometown of Columbus, OH.

And then there’s the problem of automation replacing as many as 38% of our jobs in as little as 15 years.

Some think universal basic income may soon become a necessity. But have you ever tried saying the letters UBI to a Republican? Try it, and see how quickly they cry “communism” and refuse to engage the topic further. It’s a non-starter.

It seems some idealize suicide under this system, which burdens us without providing adequate supportPeople like to call suicide a “permanent solution to a temporary problem” – but we have a lot to be depressed about, and our problems are far from temporary.
I’m not saying suicide is a solution. It never fixes anything. There’s another side of my story that screams it gets better, I swear, you really can get better and be relatively okay. But I only got there because I found something to hope for.
Ultimately, that’s what we need. We desperately need to start talking about the solutions to our problems. Being trapped and living a minimum-wage cyclical existence creates a Petri dish for depression to grow. We all need another answer.
How do we find hope in the midst of this bleak outlook? What can we do to fix the problem – to “un-trap” ourselves?

A. Self-help 

The standard advice for anyone suffering with depression is to get medication and talk to a professional. This is amazing advice and could change your life – if you can afford it. If you can’t, why not try self-help? Yes, self-help can actually cure depression. Take it from this Twitter user who reached out to me:

Self-help workbooks for mental health have been an integral part of my treatment for mental illness. I’ve learned to value them as a resource to use on my own as well as in conjunction with individual and group therapies. Not every self-help book is helpful, but workbooks that teach skills from therapies like CBT and DBT have helped me. Among other lessons, I’ve learned strategies for coping with distress, addressing negative thought patterns and practicing mindfulness that I use in everyday life.

These books have directly resulted in me having fewer and less severe panic attacks, reducing how often I self-harm and gaining greater insight into my thought patterns. The self-help workbooks that have helped me most are Mind Over Mood, The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, and The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook. I’m indebted to self-help workbooks, in addition to helping me learn new skills, they offer me a great way to revisit what I’ve learned in therapy.

– Fiona, @likeas_thewaves and likeasthewaves.wordpress.com

Or, take it from this study which says self-help can be as effective as in-person therapy in some cases. Don’t tell yourself that you’re an anomaly and that it can’t work for you; try it, and see what it can do for you.

(In fact, I’m compiling reviews of self-help books that might give you relief. Check them out.)

B. Financial Security

When my depression was at its worst, death was an obsession I longed for and I saw no other way out. Then, I found a homesteader who had built a 400-square foot house himself for $2,000. He lived off of tiny commissions from his website and book sales.

He was a retired contractor, and I was not in the physical shape to build anything, nor did I have land to build it on. But this dream has been my only solace, and ultimately the thing that brings me back from suicidal thoughts. If I can pay off my debts, get out of the cycle of apartment fees, and spend my money on a house… maybe I can live on just a little stream of income. And maybe, if I’m extremely fortunate, that income could come from writing.
I believe we shouldn’t all have to work 40 hours a week for 60 years in jobs that slowly kill us. I also don’t believe I can keep working forever. That’s why I turn toward simplicity in my daily life, and toward my dream of being an author.
The crawl toward self-sufficiency is tiresome, and homesteading can be extremely difficult work. I’m not one for romanticizing the past. I don’t think life would be “simpler” if we all owned our own chickens and cows again – just a little cheaper. Simply put, this is my solution, and it keeps me from suicidal ideation.

C. Advocacy

Mental health help is hard to come by, and often  harder to afford. Part of this problem is one of insurance and bureaucracy. When we aren’t worrying about overwhelming amounts of paperwork, maybe we’re worrying about stigma. Maybe we’re worried about economic policies that hurt the working class.
If you are in the position to speak out and advocate for solutions, please consider doing so. You could help yourself and others like you struggling with their mental health. Plus, the joy you get from making a positive difference in the world might help you feel a little better. I know engaging with the mental health community has been incredible in my life, despite the newness of this blog.

D. ???

These are the solutions I’ve found for managing mental illness when you can barely afford rent. (Unless you want to sell your plasma for therapy money; I’ve been there.) If you have more, please reach out to me @valariejward on Twitter so I can update this list. I look forward to us building solutions together as a community.

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