By Kate Lovell
Mental health and money are inextricably connected. It’s difficult to find true emotional harmony if your finances are in a mess. If you manage long term mental health conditions, as I do, you’re more likely to experience debt, have reduced earning potential and have challenges managing your finances. There have been times I’ve been too unwell to open my post. Not great when missed credit card payments and unpaid bills mean black marks on your credit record. The phrase ‘credit check’ is enough to give me chills.
I’ve always found the complexity of the financial world anxiety provoking and nothing more so than the idea of securing a mortgage. I’ve spent the last seventeen years renting, which includes fourteen moves and four no-fault evictions. The stress of receiving a no-fault eviction notice has triggered episodes of severe illness for me and have also arrived during periods of poor health.
Imagine my horror when yet another Section 21 notice arrives through my door on a Friday afternoon in July in the middle of a global pandemic. We are a family with a 2-year-old (no childcare of course due to Covid), both of us working from home and our second child on the way. I’m amazed I didn’t spontaneously combust right there in my office chair the stress bomb was that intense.
Shortly after absorbing the realities of that dreaded letter, I looked at my now ashen husband and said: “We need to buy a house.” It’s something I’d been avoiding for many years because of the levels of stress I knew I’d have to endure and the possibility that the process of buying a property could trigger a severe relapse in my bipolar disorder. But the instability of renting was not protecting my health, and I’d long ago been turned down for social or council housing. Apparently, I’m not mad enough for that level of support.
Too mad for a mortgage?
My fear was that my long-term mental health conditions, and consequent lifestyle choices, would make me ineligible for a mortgage. To keep myself well, I have found a career pattern that works for me: I have a part-time contract and I freelance for the rest of my working week. I can take on more hours when I feel well, and less when I need a break. My work must have meaning for me or I become unwell and so I work in the arts and activism. Not traditionally very lucrative lines of work, but I’m a thrifty soul and love my work so this has never bothered me. Until now.
Under the microscope
I read up about how to prepare for a mortgage application using my trusted source of the Money Saving Expert website. Its founder, Martin Lewis, also runs a charity called the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, for which I’ve participated in a few research studies. The aim of the charity is to break down barriers for people with mental health issues who face financial discrimination.
The site’s advice was very useful – but the reality of mortgage applications did shock me. There was a recommendation about not eating out in the three months leading up to a mortgage application in order that a lender wouldn’t see you as unreasonably frivolous.
Living in a capitalist world, most of the time I’m being cajoled and harassed to part with my money. The prevailing message is to buy all of the frivolous things. The same capitalist society demands that I own a property if I want security of home yet suddenly all that spending counts against me.
Thankfully for me, the lack of anywhere to spend my money had given me a relatively clean sheet when it came to handing over my three months’ worth of bank statements to a mortgage lender.
But the constant probing into the most personal aspects of my life, the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in the process of a home purchase triggered anxiety levels that wrecked my sleep and put me at dangerous risk of relapse. I knew I had to do something to regain control of my wellbeing.
Knowledge is power
My way of coping was to arm myself with knowledge. I felt painfully vulnerable being thrust into a realm I didn’t understand. So I read, watched videos, visited forums, and spoke to all my home-owning friends and family. I asked all the questions. I learnt as much as I could in hope of dampening the shrill note of anxiety that was threatening to become less of a background hum and more of a thunderous theme tune for my life: Will my offer be accepted? Will my solicitor do their due diligence? What happens if the sellers pull out at the eleventh hour?
Robust research was my way of finding the footholds in a process that requires so much trust in others.
Sleep on it
My anxiety means that I want anything outstanding resolved ten minutes ago. Waiting is not my strong point and can create mental agony. But I learnt the importance of thinking and research time whilst searching for a suitable house. We had an offer accepted and shared web links of the property with close family.
They spotted something we hadn’t – the house was an unconventional build. A bit of research uncovered that getting a mortgage would be a near insurmountable challenge, especially with our immoveable eviction deadline. We withdrew our offer, took a breath and got back to the search.
Objective eyes of trusted people who weren’t in the maelstrom of working to a hard deadline gave us crucial clarity.
Putting things in a mortgage-tight box was crucial for my mental health. I functioned best if I dealt with anything outstanding required by an estate agent, lender or solicitor as swiftly as possible. I then immediately distracted myself by playing with my little one, watching comedies, reading – anything that had nothing to do with houses.
It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always successful – some parts of the process my worst nightmare, riddled with ‘what ifs’. But downing the house buying tools wherever possible kept me from relapsing into a non-functioning state which would have been catastrophic for the family at such an important time.
Picture collecting the keys
If you’re daunted by the prospect of becoming a homeowner, you’re not alone. But buying a home and keeping hold of your head is possible, even for those of us managing long term mental health conditions. I’m living proof. On the other side of the process and having security of home for my family, especially my children, has been the greatest gift to my wellbeing.
Kate is a freelance writer of articles and blogs for a range of publications and websites including Disability Arts Online, the Peel Centre, Living with Disability, Mental Health Today, Get Up and Grow Mag, Arts Professional and the Theatre Times. Kate is a previous guest editor of Disability Arts Online. She is a Goldsmiths-trained disabled theatre maker and playwright, most recently writing Selfie for Graeae Theatre’s new writing programme Crips with Chips and working as writer and dramaturg on Define Your Journey, an interactive sonic saga hosted on You Tube. Kate works as Agent for Change at Theatre Royal Stratford East as part of the national Ramps on the Moon project, offers access consultancy to theatre buildings and companies and delivers equality training across a range of organisations, from schools to trade unions.