May 17, 2008 -- On a brisk day last fall in Prineville, Ore., Raymond and Deanna Donaca faced the unthinkable: They were losing their home to foreclosure and had days to move out.
For more than two decades, the couple had lived in their three-level house, where the elms outside blazed with yellow shades of fall and their four golden retrievers slept in the yard. The town had always been home, with a lazy river and rolling hills dotted by gnarled juniper trees.
Yet just before lunch on Oct. 23, the Donacas closed all their home's doors except the one to the garage and left their 1981 Cadillac Eldorado running. Toxic fumes filled the home. When sheriff's deputies arrived at about 1 p.m., they found the body of Raymond, 71, on the second floor along with three dead dogs. The body of Deanna, 69, was in an upstairs bedroom, close to another dead retriever.
"It is believed that the Donacas committed suicide after attempts to save their home following a foreclosure notice left them believing they had few options," the Crook County Sheriff's Office said in a report.
Their suicides were a tragic extreme, but the Donacas' case symbolizes how the housing crisis is wrenching the emotional lives of legions of homeowners. The escalating pace of foreclosures and rising fears among some homeowners about keeping up with their mortgages are creating a range of emotional problems, mental health specialists say. Those include anxiety disorders, depression and addictive behaviors such as alcoholism and gambling. And, in a few cases, suicide.
Crisis hotlines are reporting a surge in calls from frantic homeowners. The American Psychological Association (APA) and other mental-health groups are publishing tips on how to handle the emotional stress triggered by the real estate meltdown. Psychologists say they're seeing more drinking, domestic violence and marital problems linked to mortgage concerns -- as well as children trying to cope with extreme anxiety when their families are forced to move.
"They're depressed, anxious. It's affected marriages, relationships," says Richard Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee-assistance firm that is counseling homeowners over mortgage fears. "People tend to catastrophize, and that leads to depression. Suicide rates go up. We see an increase in drinking, outbursts at work, violence toward kids. Before, their houses were like ATMs," as they rose in value. "Now, they feel trapped like a rat in a corner."
Foreclosure filings surged 65 percent in April compared with the same month last year, according to a report Wednesday by RealtyTrac. One in every 519 households received a foreclosure filing last month, and the number of homes with foreclosure activity in April was the highest monthly total since RealtyTrac began issuing the report in January 2005.
Don Donaca, Raymond's brother, says it's hard to understand the suicide, but he thinks the pending foreclosure led to their deaths.
"He got so deep in debt he couldn't figure out what else to do," says Don, 74, a retired sawmill worker in Prineville. "I guess a guy would have to walk a few miles in his shoes to understand."
Financial Concerns at the Top
Many other homeowners are at risk of less severe, but still significant, psychological distress: One in seven homeowners worry that they won't be able to make their mortgage payments on time over the next six months, according to an April Associated Press-AOL Money & Finance poll, and more than one-quarter fear their home will decline in value during the next two years.
ComPsych says financial concerns are now the top issue the firm's counselors are hearing in calls from clients. Calls about financial worries have surged 20 percent over last year; those related to mortgage problems have doubled.
"It's escalated to the No. 1 issue because of the housing crisis," Chaifetz says.
Half of Americans identify housing costs, such as rent or mortgage payments, as significant sources of stress, particularly on the East and West coasts, a 2007 survey by the APA says. Sixty-one percent in the West, and 55 percent in the East (compared with 47 percent in the Midwest and 43 percent in the South) reported housing costs as a very or somewhat significant source of stress.
"The problem affects the whole spectrum, not just people losing their homes," says Leslie Beth Wish, a psychologist and social worker in Sarasota, Fla. "The stress exacerbates what is already there. It brings to the surface problems that were often already there, like marital problems. There is so much blaming people for the situations they're in, and that adds to it."
One of Wish's patients was semiretired when she bought a home in 2005 in southwest Florida as an investment that she hoped to "flip," turning a profit. The woman now owes more than the house is worth and can't sell it.
Wish says her client has developed anxiety, dwelling on her financial situation from the time she wakes up to the time she goes to sleep. Other clients, Wish says, are reporting physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach pains stemming from anxiety over their mortgage situation.
ComPsych's counselors are hearing similar stories of the mental-health toll caused by the housing slump. At the request of USA TODAY, ComPsych's spokeswoman Jennifer Hudson queried counselors to come up with examples of the types of employees they're helping. One couple were going through a divorce, and the wife told ComPsych counselors that financial stress was the final trigger. They had maxed out their credit cards and were living off credit in hopes that they could keep their house. Another woman called because she suspected her husband was gambling again, apparently hoping to win big so they could repair their financial mess. She was afraid they were going to have to move in with her parents, ComPsych says.
For Gary Sweredoski of Myrtle Beach, S.C., the threat of losing his home to foreclosure has taken both a physical and an emotional toll. In 2007, Sweredoski, who had no health insurance, underwent triple bypass surgery and wound up with more than $300,000 in medical bills. Then Sweredoski, 60, a real estate broker, saw his business suffer as the housing market crashed.
Today, he and his wife, Irene, struggle to make the mortgage payment on the dream home they built in Myrtle Beach and are trying to stave off foreclosure. Like many other homeowners struggling with the financial consequences of the housing slump, Gary says the emotional pain can be severe.
Standing on his deck overlooking a lake where ducks swim and bobbing pontoon boats drift by, he says such circumstances "shatter your pride and become very humiliating, even though the circumstances are not of our making.
"The situation keeps you up at night, preventing you from getting the rest you need. A lot of the depression that I feel, I do in private," he says.
"It angers you. It frustrates you. It has a large bearing on your emotional state. When the thought of losing a home looms, you lose more than a building. You lose what you worked for so many years, all of the equity that you have accumulated over the years. It's humbling. It affects us deeply."
Rising Depression, Suicide Rates
Historically, research shows, rates of depression and suicide tend to climb during times of economic tumult.
In an article published in 2005 by Cambridge University Press, researchers compared suicide data in Australia from January 1968 through August 2002 with economic problems such as unemployment and mortgage interest rates. The study found that economic trends are closely associated with suicide risk, with men showing a heightened risk of suicide in the face of economic adversity.
"For some people, suicide is the rational option when they see no future," says Ken Siegel, a psychologist in Beverly Hills. "One's house is very much a projection of one's self. To have a home taken away is tantamount to having part of yourself taken away. There is embarrassment. For many, it's overwhelmingly unconquerable."
In the most severe cases, as with the Donacas, authorities have linked suicides with the financial stress of foreclosures. On Oct. 25, 2007, James Hahn, 39, a chemist in north Houston, was facing foreclosure and had to vacate his home. When deputies arrived with eviction papers, Hahn engaged them and a SWAT team in a standoff that lasted more than 10 hours. It ended in the early morning when Hahn shot himself inside his home, according to a Houston Police Department report.
"Suicides are very much tied to the economy," says Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. "It's a public-health issue."
In many cases, psychiatrists say, financial stresses, such as those caused by the mortgage crisis, tend to bring pre-existing mental-health issues to the surface. Studies also show a strong connection between financial distress and emotional stress, including anxiety, depression, insomnia and migraines.
"Often, there is a dilemma of not being able to afford private mental-health treatment in the midst of a financial crisis," says Joseph Weiner, a psychiatrist and chief of consultation psychiatry at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. "Children will likely feel the parents' tension around financial stress. This could cause feelings of helplessness and anxiety in the child. Sometimes, young children blame themselves for their parents' stressful situation."
Jennifer Paschal, 36, of Woodstock, Ga., has tried to ease the effect of the foreclosure of her home on her children, Bailey, 12, and Trent, 9. But she says they've been deeply pained. After 13 years of marriage, Paschal is going through a divorce. The divorce and medical bills led the family to lose its home to foreclosure in April. Paschal couldn't afford the $1,300 monthly mortgage payment on her $45,000 annual salary as a day care center director.
The home is a six-bedroom house on an acre of land, with a trampoline in the backyard, blooming pink azaleas and rose bushes, and a muddy creek where Trent and Bailey would catch frogs and play with their two dogs, a retriever and a Labrador.
Before they left, Paschal took the children to their rooms and told them to fill a box with whatever they wanted to take with them. They moved in July to a two-bedroom, $900-a-month apartment. The "for sale" sign on the house they lost to foreclosure went up this month. When she saw a picture of it, Paschal says, she cried.
The children are suffering, too. Trent worries about money. Recently, at the grocery store, he told his mother not to buy milk because it cost $4. He begs his mother to get a house again, saying that he's old enough now to cut the grass.
"It's hard," Paschal says. "I think they see things very differently now. My son asked me how much money I have, and I told him not to worry about it. We had to give away our Lab and our bird dog (because it seemed unfair to keep them in such a small apartment). That killed my son. That tore him apart, big time."
In the new apartment, Paschal doesn't sleep well. After she goes to bed, she hears Trent scurry out of his bed to make sure all the doors are locked. Then Trent comes to her room and quietly tells his mother she can sleep now because everything is safe.