Loss of Wealth Can Disrupt Mental Health

By Michael Oberschneider
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The reasons why somebody decides to take his or her life often remain opaque, even when there’s a suicide note. But recent highly publicized deaths, such as the apparent murder-suicides of one family in their Middletown home and another in a Towson hotel room, and now the apparent suicide of Freddie Mac’s 41-year-old acting chief financial officer, David Kellermann, have fueled speculation about the special psychological stresses caused by financial crisis.

I can’t comment on those cases, but as a psychologist I have seen a correlation between the economy’s downturn in the past year and increased symptoms among my clients of anxiety, stress and depression, as well as marital and parenting conflicts focused on spending. Some of my clients are having trouble sleeping; others complain about increases in stress-induced stomach pain and headaches.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2007 survey on stress in America, work and money are the two greatest factors of stress for about 75 percent of Americans. Research has also shown increases in drinking, eating, gambling and smoking in response to stress. Another survey found a decrease in visits to the doctor during the current recession.

Suicide rates in the United States are on the rise after more than a decade of dropping, and middle-aged white males are a particularly vulnerable group, with four times as many men as women dying by suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The loss of jobs and health insurance are just two of the variables that have been associated with that increase.

What I hear from my clients and colleagues suggests that the financial downturn and continued uncertainty have overtaxed us emotionally.

The country’s economic problems are beyond our control, making it all the more essential to pay attention to what you can do on an individual level. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind during these tough times:

— The adage that misery loves company does not apply here. Finding friends, family members and co-workers to complain to in hopes of feeling supported will probably lead to more upset. Talking about the economy will probably involve some degree of mutual worrying and frustration. So avoid the topic. People say that politics and religion are topics to be avoided at social gatherings; I would add the stock market to that list.

— Don’t keep looking at your investment portfolio; it will only upset you further. I recommend scheduling a short time (30 minutes at most) on the weekend to review your portfolio and make any needed adjustments. This way your work week is freed up to focus your energies on what matters most: your work, your relationships and yourself.

— Avoid making statements such as “It’s gotta turn around soon” or “This has to be the bottom, right?” That sort of thought pattern will lead only to more worries. Instead, come up with a mantra that fits you well, such as “I have what I need today.”

— Reduce the time you spend looking at or listening to the media discussing the financial crisis. Checking in briefly at the start of the day and at the end of the day is a better approach than watching CNBC all evening. You will be just as informed without running the risk of excessive exposure to the situation.

— Living a balanced life is always a good thing, especially so in trying times. Avoid drinking to excess, watch your diet and make sure to get enough sleep and exercise.

— Focus on areas beyond your financial concerns. Start a hobby or organize your home. Consider taking an evening class. Many companies offer to pay a percentage for schooling, especially if the course work relates to your job. Additional activities will serve as a distraction and possibly give you a greater sense of control over the areas you can have some control over.

— If you or someone you know exhibits any of the warning signs of suicide, such as sudden, disturbing changes in behavior, get help right away. You can reach a suicide hotline such as 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-999-9999 or call 911 at any time of the day.

It’s important to remember that America has faced recessions before — and we’ve gotten through them.

Michael Oberschneider is a psychologist who treats children, adolescents and adults; he is director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services. Comments: health@washpost.com.