How to Conquer Recession Depression

Experts offer advice on coping with the financial blues.

October 6, 2008, 1:27 PM

Oct. 7, 2008 — -- Listen in at a coffee shop, stop a stranger on the street or strike up a conversation at the bus stop and you'll likely hear a story like Marie Moore's.

Struggling to pay her bills and concerned about her husband's prolonged unemployment, the 31-year-old human resources assistant said the recession is taking an emotional toll.

"I stay up worrying and not being able to sleep very well, I'm constantly thinking," Moore told "He kind of tends to shut down a bit and sleep a lot."

The Moores' story is not unusual. The couple moved from Harrisburg, Pa., to Danville, Pa., during the summer for a job opportunity, but Moore's husband was laid off shortly thereafter when his employer restructured. Today, the former general manager of a banquet facility finds himself in a situation he's never faced before as he waits tables and looks for work.

"I try not to skip my credit card bills, but the electric right now is three months' late. The telephone is two months' late," Moore said.

With the stock market plunging and Americans losing their homes and jobs, it's no surprise that mental health can take a nose-dive as well. In tough economic times, hopelessness and depression can encroach on our energy and optimism.

"It isn't your normal kind of recession, which makes it more fearful and it paralyzes people," said Harvey Brenner, a public health professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, who has long studied the relationship between mental health and recession.

Brenner also said suicide rates can almost become economic indicators.

In Virginia, a suicide hot line said suicide-related calls in July and August were up 62 percent from the same time last year. Though the hot line's operators said the rise is not all due to the economy, call logs indicate that's part of what's going on.

Crisis hot lines around the country have reported recent increases of people concerned about their finances. ComPsych, the largest provider of employee assistance programs, said calls from people asking for help because of stress from financial problems jumped 21 percent in July 2008, from a year earlier. ValueOptions, which also runs employee assistance programs, said people calling to ask for help with financial problems have jumped 89 percent.

"I think the general tone is this sense of despondency," Marlene Zetzer, a psychiatrist from St. Simons Island, Ga., told this week. "Most people are kind of feeling just a little discouraged and helpless, overwhelmed at what the next step is. They don't know what's going on."

Zetzer, who consults patients in the southwest Georgia health system, said that during the last six months, she's noticed an exponential increase in the number of people who immediately bring up their financial stress, even before they refer to the medical conditions that brought them to the hospital. She said the doctors and nurses she works with are also feeling the blues.

But for those whose finances and lack of job stability are the root of their concerns, it can be exceedingly difficult to pay for the health-care resources that could help them pull through.

In Atlanta, psychologist Erik Fisher said a lot of people who have money stress can't afford therapy. And other patients have had to cut back on their sessions to save money.

Zetzer said the recession also means patients are having trouble affording medications and finding gas money to drive to their appointments. As a result, she said she increasingly spends time helping tackle the logistics, like finding them more affordable medications and other mental health resources.

"It's really changed a lot of the ways I've practiced previously because of their economic conditions," she said.

To confront their worries, Moore said she and her husband are trying to appreciate simple pleasures and "things that don't cost any money" -- such as going to the park.

"It could be so much worse," Moore said, adding that the couple bought a house in Danville that fortunately was not beyond their means. "Thankfully we still have a house and we can still afford the mortgage."

Similarly, Zetzer said she spends time helping patients recognize the positives in their lives during these hard times.

"I'm working more to help them just deal with the present situation and help them get through a period of time that's difficult for them not only medically but emotionally," she said.

Another piece of advice? Don't be so hard on yourself, Brenner added. He said that although people tend to blame themselves for what's going wrong, they should understand that they're caught up in a larger situation that isn't really of their own making.

In the meantime, we need to strive not to let our worries paralyze us, said Fisher. One way to do that is to get busy, for instance, by writing down goals and options to be prepared when plans change, he said.

"We have to not feed off each other's fear," Fisher said.

ABC News' Lisa Stark contributed to this report.

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