High prices, high stress: How living cost is taking a toll on mental health


  • Family
  • Wednesday, 10 Jan 2024

Financial issues take toll on mental health; affecting not only adults who have to grapple with increased living costs, but also their children. — 123rf.com

THE HIGH prices of daily essentials is taking a toll on wage earners’ disposable incomes, but what is less talked about is the effects high cost of living pose on mental health.

Beyond market shifts and economic jargon lies a facet that is often overlooked – the acute toll on mental health that is not only affecting adults who have to grapple with increased living costs, but also their children. When you work full time and are still cash-strapped between salaries, you often live on the edge.

International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) psychology lecturer Dr Ruhaya Hussin says it is true that the financial pressures of inflation places a heavy economic burden on people, which can lead to a deterioration in mental health.

“Inflation, with its cascading effects, has become an invisible foe that is quietly causing stress, anxiety and a sense of uncertainty that transcends mere monetary concerns,” she adds.

“Those affected may lose sleep and have headaches thinking about ways to resolve their issues. And due to the repeated activation of this stress response, there will be increased wear and tear on their brains and bodies which ultimately leads to an increased risk of poor health and mortality,” she says.

Ruhaya says a heavy economic burden can lead to a deterioration in mental health. — RUHAYA HUSSINRuhaya says a heavy economic burden can lead to a deterioration in mental health. — RUHAYA HUSSIN

“Everything is getting more expensive while our income remains the same,” laments content writer and mother-of-two P. Santhoshana, 33. “So yes, we are affected by the price hike, especially since childcare and healthcare cost more than what we can comfortably afford,” she says.

Although her situation “is still manageable”, thanks to her husband’s second job and the savings which they managed to set aside before the arrival of their children, Santhoshana admits that “some days are just difficult.”

“When we run out of money, we just have to dig into our savings,” says Santhoshana, who earns RM4,500 a month.

Risk services associate Veronica Rowena Selvarajah, 43, earns RM7,500 a month, but she says she is not spared from the impact of inflation either.

“Besides my own family, I also have to take care of my disabled brother who is dependent on us, and my elderly parents,” says the mother of two sons, aged 10 and five.

Even though her parents live on her father’s invalidity pension from Social Security Organisation (Socso), Veronica says their utility and medical bills, and transportation expenses are in her monthly budget.

“Managing family and work is quite exhausting and taxing,” says Veronica who lives in Semenyih, Selangor but works in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.

Luckily, she only needs to go to the office two days in a week. “This hybrid working arrangement does help to ease both my financial and mental stress,” she adds.

Santhoshana says it's sad for parents when you work hard to give your children a good life, but you don't get to spend time to watch them grow. — P. SANTHOSHANASanthoshana says it's sad for parents when you work hard to give your children a good life, but you don't get to spend time to watch them grow. — P. SANTHOSHANA

Better on paper

Wealth Vantage Advisory director Idham Idris says Malaysia has an inflation rate of 1.9%, a relatively moderate number compared to many other countries. But despite this, he admits the rising cost of living has become a major concern for many households.

The gradual removal of subsidies implemented on essential goods like fuel, electricity and food items has led to increased prices, significantly affecting individuals and families in low- and middle-income brackets.

“Economic pressures often force families to alter their lifestyles, like seeking cheaper alternatives, reducing optional spending or finding additional income sources,” he adds.

“Worse, they might even resort to using more credit to manage their daily expenses which will lead to higher level of debt. Not to mention the impact on their savings or investment,” he says.

Idham says the removal of subsidies has led to increased prices, affecting consumers in the low- and middle-income brackets. — IDHAM IDRISIdham says the removal of subsidies has led to increased prices, affecting consumers in the low- and middle-income brackets. — IDHAM IDRIS

In a nutshell, Idham says, the key to overcoming financial challenges lies in prudent budget management with strategic spending, while exploring additional income sources and staying informed about government policies and taking advantage of aid programmes.

“It’s also essential to stay focused on long-term financial goals,” he adds.

Idham says it pays to cultivate good financial habits, including keeping a strict budget and tracking expenses diligently.

“You should also maintain an emergency fund that can cover three to six months of living expenses,” he says.

“Avoid taking on high-interest debt. If you have existing debt, prioritise paying off high-interest loans first. But continue to save and invest, even if it’s a small amount.”

“It’s also not advisable to cut corners on essential insurance coverage. Health, life and property insurance can protect you from financial disasters,” he adds.

“Don’t compromise on health and nutrition too, because preventative healthcare can save you money in the long run. Also, educate yourself and your family about personal finance. Knowledge is key to making informed financial decisions,” he says.

Veronica says a hybrid working arrangement helps ease both her financial and mental stress. — VERONICA ROWENA SELVARAJAHVeronica says a hybrid working arrangement helps ease both her financial and mental stress. — VERONICA ROWENA SELVARAJAH

Mental toll

As prices continue their relentless ascent, the burden stretches far beyond financial strains, filling into the very fabric of daily life. Santhoshana could not help but constantly worries that the double job would drain her husband, although she is very thankful that he works hard for the family.

“He works through two jobs to provide quality life for the kids, while squeezing in some time to be with them. But the stress takes a toll on us. On bad days, we sometimes lash out at them,” she adds.

Santhoshana admits that the stress and worries create a strain in their relationship but the two of them agree that they have to be optimistic and try their best to make it work.

“Still, it’s depressing when you work so hard to give your children a good life but you don’t get to spend time to watch them grow,” she adds.

The couple only have two hours to spend with their children before they call it a night. “Our source of happiness is our kids. As long as they are well and happy, nothing else matters. We just have to put aside our tiredness and spend quality time with them daily,” Santhoshana says.

Although Veronica does not have a problem balancing her time between family and work, thanks to her hybrid working arrangement, she still feels overwhelmed with her tasks.

“Yes, I get to spend more time with the boys, while managing my parents and my brother, and I even have time to go for a brisk walk three times a week. But there are still a lot of things on my plate,” she adds.

Despite that, Veronica says she strives to make herself financially fit. “It is just not fair to ask my husband to support my family,” she adds.

“Good financial planning is a way to face inflation and manage financial hardship, but when it comes to mental health issues, a few early strategies can be used,” says Ruhaya.

Among them are self-reporting and self-assessment of your own mental health, observations by family and friends, face-to face assessment by a general practitioner (GP) and technology-based assessments methods.

Ruhaya says it’s imperative to keep a healthy mind and body. “As much as you can, take care of yourself and treat yourself to some me-time once in a while. Get in touch with friends and family for connection and limit your news consumption or time spent on social media,” she says.

“Make sure you get enough ‘good’ sleep and maintain a routine. And when things overwhelm you, seek help,” she advises.

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