Despite money’s central role in our psychic lives, many trainees – and some seasoned practitioners – skirt around financial issues. Some clinicians confess that inquiring about patients’ finances feels “too personal.” They fear that asking about money could suggest that the clinician is primarily concerned with getting paid. Some clinicians feel that looking into patients’ finances might be unprofessional, outside one’s scope of practice. But it is not.
Trainees often receive little guidance concerning money matters in patients’ lives and treatments, considerations we have labeled clinical psychoeconomics. Considerable evidence suggests that financial concerns often provoke emotional distress and dysfunctional behaviors, and directly influence patient’s health care decisions. Financial issues also influence how clinicians view and react to patients.
We have recently reviewed (and illustrated through case vignettes) how money matters might impact psychiatric assessment, case formulation, treatment planning, and ongoing psychiatric treatments including psychotherapies.1 Consider how money affects people’s lives: Money helps people meet multiple practical, psychological, and social needs by enabling them to obtain food, clothing, shelter, other material goods, services, discretionary time, and opportunities. And money strongly influences relationships. Regardless of poverty or wealth, thoughts and behaviors connected to acquiring, possessing, and disposing of money, and feelings accompanying these processes such as greed, neediness, envy, pride, shame, guilt, and self-satisfaction often underly intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts.
Individuals constantly engage in numerous simultaneous conscious, preconscious, and unconscious neuro-economic trade-offs that determine goals, efforts, and timing. Many are financially influenced. Money influences how virtually all patients seek, receive, and sustain their mental health care including psychotherapy.
Money problems can be associated with insecurity, impotence, feeling unloved, and lack of freedom or subjugation. Individuals may resent how they’re forced to acquire money, and feel shamed or morally injured by their jobs, financial dependence on other family members, public assistance, or their questionable ways of obtaining money.
Impoverished individuals may face choosing between food, housing, medications, and medical care. Domestically abused individuals may reluctantly remain with their abusers, risking physical harm or death rather than face destitution. Some families tolerate severely disabled individuals at home because they rely on their disability checks and caregiver payments. Suicides may turn on how individuals forecast financial repercussions affecting their families. Desires to avoid debt may lead to treatment avoidance.
Individuals with enough money to get by face daily financially related choices involving competing needs, desires, values, and loyalties. They may experience conflicts concerning spending on necessities vs. indulgences or spending on oneself vs. significant others.
Whereas some wealthy individuals may assume unwarranted airs of superiority and entitlement, others may feel guilty about wealth, or fearful that others like them only for their money. Individuals on the receiving end of wealth may feel emotionally and behaviorally manipulated by their benefactors.
Assessments should consider how financial matters have shaped patients’ early psychological development as well their current lives. How do patients’ emotions, thoughts, and behaviors reflect money matters? What money-related pathologies are evident? What aspects of the patient’s “financial world” seem modifiable?
Financial questions should be posed colloquially. Screeners include: “Where do you live?”, “Who’s in the home?”, “How do you (all) manage financially?”, “What do you all do for a living?”, “How do you make ends meet?”, and “What financial problems are you facing?” Clinicians can quickly learn about patients’ financial self-sufficiencies, individuals for whom they bear financial responsibility, and others they rely on for support, for example, relatives. If patients avoid answering such questions forthrightly, particularly when financial arrangements are “complicated,” clinicians will want to revisit these issues later after establishing a firmer alliance but continue to wonder about the meaning of the patient’s reluctance.
When explicit, patients, families, and couples are fully aware of the conflicts but have difficulty resolving financial disputes. When conflicts are implicit, money problems may be unacknowledged, avoided, denied, or minimized. Conflicts concerning money are often transmitted trans-generationally.
Psychopathological conditions unequivocally linked to money include compulsive shopping, gambling disorders, miserly hoarding, impulse buying, and spending sprees during hypomanic and manic states. Mounting debts may create progressively insurmountable sources of distress. Money can be weaponized to sadistically create enticement, envy, or deprivation. Some monetarily antisocial individuals compromise interpersonal relationships as well as treatments. Individuals with alcohol/substance use disorders may spend so much on substances that little is left for necessities. Financially needy individuals may engage in morally questionable behaviors they might otherwise shun.
Case formulation and treatment planning
Incorporating money matters into case formulations entails demonstrating how financial concerns influenced maladaptive development and distort current attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors.
Concurrently, clinicians should acknowledge patients’ reality-based fiscal decisions, appreciating cultural and family value differences concerning how money should be acquired and spent. Since money often determines frequency and duration of treatment visits, clinicians are ethically obligated to discuss with patients what they might expect from different medications and psychotherapies, and their comparative costs.
Money matters’ impact on psychotherapies
Money matters often affect transference and countertransference reactions. Some reactions stem from how patients and clinicians compare their own financial situations with those of the other.
To help identify and ameliorate money-related countertransference responses, clinicians can reflect on questions such as: “How comfortable are you with people who are much poorer or richer than you are?” “How comfortable are you with impoverished individuals or with multimillionaires or their children?” And “why?” For trainees, all these reactions should be discussed in supervision.
To summarize, four clinical psychoeconomic issues should be routinely assessed and factored into psychiatric case formulations and treatment plans: how financial issues 1) have impacted patients’ psychological development; 2) impact patients’ current lives; 3) are likely to impact access, type, intensity, and duration of treatment visits; and 4) might provoke money-related transference and countertransference concerns.
In advising patients about treatment options, clinicians should discuss each treatment’s relative effectiveness and estimated costs of care. Patients’ decisions will likely be heavily influenced by financial considerations.
Dr. Yager is based in the department of psychiatry, University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. Dr. Kay is based in the department of psychiatry, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. No external funds were received for this project, and the authors have no conflicts to disclose.
1. Yager J and Kay J. Money matters in psychiatric assessment, case formulation, treatment planning, and ongoing psychotherapy: Clinical psychoeconomics. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2022 Jun 10. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000001552.