Thursday, August 21, 2008

WNYC: When Recession (Economic) Increases Depression (And Other Mental Illness)

by Fred Mogul

NEW YORK, NY August 21, 2008 —Although the economy of the tri-state metropolitan area has remained relatively stable compared with other areas facing the economic downturn, some mental health professionals are reporting an increase in anxiety about jobs, housing and financial prospects. WNYC’s Fred Mogul reports.

REPORTER: In certain industries, you’re never unemployed, you’re just free-lancing. For anxiety-prone fashion producer Johanna, free-lancing is getting tougher and tougher. Four years ago, she could make $10,000 in the three weeks it took her to produce a fashion show.

JOHANNA: Now, I find that for the same amount of work, it could be $3,000-5,000. I’m not making as much, but everything else is getting more expensive.

REPORTER: Johanna, who asked to only give her first name, would like more steady work. She teaches a fashion class at a vocational school. A full-time gig there would be great. But the school has been cutting back, and more experienced staff are snatching up all the teaching assignments.

JOHANNA: Because of their senior level, they’re able to do that, and the part-timers, we’re – we can’t do anything about it.

REPORTER: In a Gallup poll in March, the economy tied with health care as the country’s top “worry.” And this month, 83 percent of Americans said they had a negative view of the economy, an increase of more than 20 points since the beginning of the year. Clinical psychologist Dr. Eun Jung Suh, of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, says her patients, both rich and poor, are talking more and more about the recession.

SUH: Every day they’re going into work, and seeing their colleagues, not just one or two, either laid off, fired or quit. And so, they’re always walking on eggshells, wondering when it’s going to happen to them and feeling extremely stressed and insecure.

REPORTER: You don’t need a ph.d to know that losing a job or housing, or watching the erosion of retirement or college savings is stressful. But for people with problems ranging from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia and substance abuse, even the prospect of economic loss can worsen their condition. Dr. Suh specializes in anxiety, so she doesn’t exactly have a random sample of people. But she says about half of her patients are concerned enough about the economy that it’s profoundly affecting their emotional lives and their relationships – a quarter of them seriously.

SUH: It does make them contemplate suicidal thoughts and have severe anxiety to the point where they have difficulty leaving their home.

REPORTER: Johanna’s case is not that severe. But it does go beyond the everyday stress that anyone might feel in a city, where costs continue to climb while many employers are cut staffing and wages.

JOHANNA: I feel [that] I’m constantly paring back, and my life is going downhill, although there’s certain progress I’ve made on myself. For somebody who’s trying to feel better about themselves, if the reality that’s looking at you in the face says otherwise, how can you tell yourself every day, "I’m doing better. I’m doing better," because, in fact, it’s not.

REPORTER: With her income declining, Johanna is on Medicaid. It covers some medications but not others. It doesn’t cover her therapy, but she gets that at a discount from Dr. Jeffrey Ditzell, a Bellevue Hospital psychiatrist with a private practice. He says many people with limited or no coverage simply drop out of therapy, or stop taking their medications, or begin taking smaller doses of their medication to stretch their supply.

DITZELL: Certainly, consistency is the name of the game in mental health treatment. You have to be consistent with your energies and your treatment plans, and if not, that can spell relapse, which can be even more devastating than the financial concerns that are valid.

REPORTER: Social service agencies say government contracts and charitable donations are both shrinking. Mary Pender Greene, at the Jewish Family and Childrens Services, one of the city’s largest community providers, says her agency has cut 16 staff members and reduced several programs. Meanwhile, more and more people are coming to them to get help dealing with everything from drug addiction to domestic abuse.

GREENE: If somebody loses their job or is threatened by losing their jobs, they don’t beat up their boss. They come home and beat up someone in their house, whether it’s a mate or children.

REPORTER: In the past, Peter grappled with drug abuse. He has been clean for a few years. Sitting in Union Square, he says when he lost his job this spring, he was confident he could stay away from drugs. But he did feel anxiety surge and really wondered about his prospects.

PETER: Always in the back my mind was that the months could drag on. And the months could drag to a year without work and I would be dependent on people for longer and this would probably set me back longer.

REPORTER: Since then, Peter managed to find work, a good job with an educational technology firm. It’s got more room for career advancement than any of the retail jobs he’s held in recent years.

PETER: It is going to enable me to have more money in my pocket than I've ever had before, so I’m definitely excited about that.

REPORTER: Peter says he’s lucky he has a family that has helped him, financially and emotionally. Counselors and therapists all say that whether it’s a family or a community group or a religious congregation, having some kind of support network is invaluable for improving both mild and severe mental illness. Many people aren’t as lucky as Peter, and don’t have these networks. And for them, riding out the recession is likely to be more of a challenge.

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