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Study finds link between Bipolar Disorder and compulsive spending

A new study led by the Academy of Research & Improvement at Solent NHS Trust has shown a link between people with Bipolar Disorder and compulsive spending.

The study highlighted that compulsive spending may be increased by psychological factors such as low self-esteem and the need to achieve, which are common traits for people with bipolar disorder. It built upon two previous studies on the same topic.

Compulsive spending is defined as a need or obsession with shopping and spending money, resulting in the constant need to shop and often results in the purchase of unnecessary or even unwanted items.

The research was led by Clinical Psychologist Dr Thomas Richardson and co-authored by Chris Fitch from the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol. It found that compulsive spending increased over time more for those with lower self-esteem or less mindful about their spending – with some participants reporting their spending running ‘on automatic’.

Compulsive spending also increased for those with stronger thoughts about achievement, which are often higher in people with bipolar disorder.

Forty participants were given two sets of questionnaires across a four-month period and were asked questions around their spending behaviours and current financial situation. They were also asked about their mental health and psychological factors such as how mindful they were.

In the first paper the researchers analysed questionnaire responses and interviews about how those with bipolar disorder felt their finances and mental health were related. Participants often reported impulsive shopping when hypomanic. The responses also identified a number of themes such as being excessively generous to others, finding it hard to keep steady employment and ‘comfort spending’ to make themselves feel better.

In a second study the researchers found that symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression increased compulsive buying over a four-month period.

There was also a vicious cycle whereby compulsive spending also increased later anxiety. Those who believed their financial situation was worse also had a greater increase in anxiety and stress over time.

The authors combined the results of all three studies into one model to try and explain the relationship. Further research will be done to confirm the findings by repeating the research with a larger sample over a longer period of time.

Dr Thomas Richardson, Clinical Psychologist at Solent NHS Trust, said: “It is often assumed that people with bipolar disorder over-spend randomly, however these results suggest that it might sometimes be serving a purpose. We found that financial problems led to thoughts about a need to achieve, so it might be that some people cope with their money worries by developing a plan to try to make money such as a risky business venture. Essentially they may try to spend money to make money, which could backfire and make their financial situation worse.

“For example, I myself have bipolar disorder, and when I was manic aged 18 I went into a shop and bought five African Djembe drums at once. To my friends and family this seemed like a random purchase, like I had just seen them and liked the look of them, but actually in my mind it linked to a very unrealistic and impulsive business plan I had to set up a recording studio. I was trying to make myself some money for starting university but I ended up getting into debt.

“There was also a finding of comfort spending to try and cope with the depression or stress, which might come from low confidence about their financial problems. Some people may also be overly generous to those they care about as they worry about their relationships, but sadly this might end up making them regret their over-spending.

“These results suggest that psychological therapies such as mindfulness and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy may help to break the link between money and mental health in Bipolar Disorder.”

Leah Milner, a freelance money and mental health journalist who has Bipolar Disorder, said that during her ‘high’ phase, she was full of ideas for new projects - both journalism-related and artistic, but this led to compulsive spending.

"Many of my purchases seemed random to me when I looked back, but when I reflect they were all loosely linked to creative plans I had in mind,” she said.

"I wanted to write an article about how you could buy a whole new work wardrobe from charity shops, so this helped me justify spending a lot of money on second hand clothes. But my thinking was disordered as so many of the shoes I bought were not even the right size for me.

"I love painting and I think some of my other random purchases, such as a top hat or crockery, were meant to be props that I could use for still life scenes. In that context the purchases do not seem so strange, but it was the compulsion to buy so many things with only the slightest hint of an idea and the scale of the spending that was problematic."

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