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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Shopping Bipolar Patient

Q. I'm dating a female bipolar patient, age 28 . She has a purchasing problem that seems related to her depression. When she gets depressed she spends money she does not have, which I fear may lead to bankruptcy. I've read that a lot of bipolar patients become bankrupt. My question: Is there a law that protects bipolar patients from purchases? Can she return items that vendors must accept back simply because she is bipolar? What else can be done?

A. To the best of my knowledge, there are no such laws governing the purchases of patients with bipolar disorder, or any other mental disorder. I am not a lawyer, but I suppose that in the case of a very large purchase that the merchant would not take back - say, $10,000 or more - a patient with a mental disorder who wanted to return the item(s) could take the merchant to court, and argue that at the time of the purchase, the patient was incompetent, owing to the mental disorder; and thus, that there was no valid contract between the patient and the merchant.

But as a rule, people are presumed competent until a judicial determination decides otherwise, and this includes individuals with psychiatric disorders. In other words, having a psychiatric disorder does not (nor should it) automatically render a person incompetent to make financial (or any other) decisions.

Much depends on the particular patient; how adequately treated he or she is; and in what phase of illness he or she is in at the time. For example, bipolar patients often spend huge amounts of money during their manic phase, which they usually regret later. But during their stable (euthymic) phases, bipolar patients are as capable as anybody else, with respect to purchasing things. For most patients with mental disorders, clinicians try to educate the patient and his/her spouse or family about the nature of the illness; the importance of staying on mood-stabilizing medication; how to spot a relapse; and how to steer the person away from making any impulsive decisions, such as spending huge amounts of money.

In severe cases, a court can appoint a guardian to manage the finances of an incompetent person; or, an individual may voluntarily grant durable power of attorney to a friend or relative, giving that person power to manage the patient's finances, sign contracts, etc. In the case of the woman you are dating, we may have a scenario that is only indirectly related to her bipolar disorder, and does not necessarily point to a lack of competence. Many individuals, when depressed or down, will soothe or nurture themselves by buying things. If all of these individuals had special rights under the law to return their purchases, I suspect our economy would go into recession in a few days!

If you intend to pursue a long-term, intimate relationship with the woman you describe, you can probably best be of help by helping her recognize her spending pattern, and gently guiding her into less expensive mood-lifting activities when she is depressed-say, a movie and dinner out. If she is not already in psychotherapy, she probably should be. It is the role of the therapist to explore the problem you describe, and to offer some constructive alternatives to binge shopping. You may also find help (as may your friend) through the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA), who can be very supportive of families and loved ones of bipolar individuals. They can be reached at 800-826-3632 or at http://www.ndmda.org/.

I hope you and your friend are able to find some creative alternatives.

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January, 2001

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