Thursday, October 30, 2008 Mental health, perspective in economic crises

BY TONI RAITEN-D'ANTONIO | Toni Raiten-D'Antonio is a private practice psychotherapist and professor of social services at the Hauppauge branch of SUNY Empire State College
October 30, 2008

Switch on the TV news and you hear about a Massachusetts woman facing foreclosure who committed suicide, and a man from Nebraska who abandoned his children because he was overwhelmed by his responsibilities.

Want more proof that people are coming unhinged over the economy? Check out the recent American Psychological Association study reporting a stark rise in headaches, stomachaches and muscle tension - all caused by money worries. Given the headlines, you might expect that psychotherapists are seeing sky-high anxiety in their patients. In my private practice the opposite is true.

While others fret and grieve, nearly all of the men and women I see for therapy are moving quickly through the shock of recent economic events to important realizations about themselves, their social environment and the truly important things in their lives. For them, the sudden decline of a retirement account or the impending loss of a home has been the equivalent of being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The initial shock is followed by intense self-reflection and a decision to create a new perspective on life that is, in every way, better.

In the analysis stage, I hear patients acknowledge that they have long been in a kind of trance, eagerly buying stuff - cars, houses, clothes, etc. - under the assumption that objects could make them feel good. Deep inside they had harbored doubts about this status-oriented way of life, but everyone they knew had fallen under the same spell, which was reinforced by an overheated consumer culture and a false sense of wealth based on credit.

Some even felt that all the getting and consuming was patriotic. Didn't the president ask us to go out shopping in response to 9/11?

Others recognized the shallow roots of happiness bought with home equity loans, but chose denial over defying the culture. Competition over who had the best stuff was rampant and "normal."

Now that the real estate and financial markets have collapsed, the spell is broken and thoughtful people are searching for a way to transcend the sense of crisis. They aren't looking for a solution in the mass media, which once encouraged us to find happiness in things and now demands we feel frightened and desperate. While they accept that certain things, like the Dow, are beyond their control, they find that true happiness lies with their relationships, creative pursuits, and caring for themselves and others.

In other words, they are pursuing mental health instead of material wealth.

One older woman put it to me this way: "Hug your kids. Feed your friends. Pet the dog."

A recently married younger woman said, "I'm finding out that coping with this is actually romantic. We're in it together, creating solutions. It actually feels good, in a weird way."

As my patients deal with the crisis, they give me hope that just like them, our society will set new priorities and grow wiser. This is what happened during the Great Depression, when people were forced to abandon materialism. The playful popular music and films of the time reflected this process, and it's there that one film buff who sees me for therapy finds inspiration.

Last week, she recalled how the good witch Glinda in "The Wizard of Oz" reminded Dorothy that she had always held the power to go home to Kansas - to find peace - within herself. Fortunately for us, we don't have to travel at all to realize the same truth.

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