Suicide: The Other Economic Depression

New government web site aims to help those depressed, suicidal due to recession.

ByRussell Goldman
March 31, 2009, 6:24 PM

April 1, 2009— -- This is LaTasha Peeler's great depression.

After losing her job as a receptionist a year ago, Peeler, 29, thought she would quickly find something else and get back on her feet. Then, her mother died and the economy cratered.

Today, Peeler, a 29-year-old veteran, remains jobless, depressed and living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I just keep wondering, 'How can I get out of this situation?' I'm stressed, I'm sick, I feel anxious. I'm really depressed. I worry that I'll never find a job, no matter how many resumes I submit," she said.

It got so bad she wanted to die.

"Last January I attempted suicide by trying to slit my wrists. I spent 10 days at the VA hospital in the psych ward because of stress and depression," said Peeler, who receives just $247 a month in disability from the military.

The recession has taken its toll on millions of Americans, many of whom have lost their jobs, their homes and their savings. The faltering economy has also exacted a psychological toll, leading some people to experience anxiety, depression and to contemplate suicide.

Though most of the headlines regarding government help focus on the automakers and financial services companies, the Department of Health and Human Services Tuesday launched a Web site to aid those facing a mental health crisis in light of the difficult economic times.

The Web site, A Guide to Getting Through Tough Economic Times, teaches people to identify symptoms of depression and lists resources on where to find help.

Comparing the emotional impact of the recession to that of living through a disaster, like a hurricane, A. Kathryn Power, director of the Center for Mental Health Services, said the department was prompted to launch the site after noticing a spike in calls to suicide prevention hotlines.

Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, run by HHS, increased 27 percent year over year, from 39,465 calls in January 2008 to 50,158 calls in January 2009.

"We believed this was an appropriate time to launch the site because of an increase in inquiries from our partners and an uptick in calls to our toll-free numbers, including the suicide lifeline," Power said.

Suicide Rates Rise in Down Economy Historically

The site lists "unemployment, foreclosures, loss of investments and other financial distress" as "devastating to your emotional and mental well-being."

Depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviors like overeating and excessive gambling, as well as suicide can all be triggered by facing difficult economic problems, according to the guide.

There is currently no national data on recent suicides -- the newest figures, to be released later this month, cover deaths from 2006 -- so, researchers cannot say emphatically that suicides have increased in the past year.

However, suicide rates do historically correlate with downturns in the economy, and there has been an increase in calls to prevention hotlines this year, said Dr. Paula Clayton, the medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Clayton said that 90 percent of people who commit suicide displayed symptoms of diagnosable mental disorders before killing themselves. But she said a singular life-changing event, like losing one's home, job or personal finances, could lead down the dark path to suicide.

"There is a link between mental disorders and suicide. The most common disorder is depression and a life-changing event can trigger depression at any age," she said. "Lots of people lose their jobs and get depressed -- that's normal. But then, they bounce back. Other people, though, don't just bounce back," she said.

Both Clayton and the government guide identify persistent feelings of sadness, lack of sleep, increased use of alcohol or drugs, anger and apathy as symptoms of mental illness.

"Some people experience a profound change in behavior. They feel deeply unmotivated, don't go look for new jobs and stay at home. They eat more or less than normal and they can't sleep properly. They lose focus and can't concentrate or work to get their resume in order. And they need help," Clayton said.

Government 'More Reactive Than Proactive'

The government site provides online tools that let users locate local mental health service providers and substance abuse treatment facilities.

Power said that funding for the site came out of the regular budget for the department's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, and its creation was not dictated by the Obama administration.

The federal government has been criticized in the past for its approach to dealing with mental illness. In the initial wake of the Iraq War, many mental health professionals were critical of the government's handling of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Federal and state governments have been reluctant in the past to take mental health seriously," said Rafael Herrera, a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley. "The government has always been more reactive to problems than proactive.

"It's good news to hear the government is taking a more proactive approach with this Web site. Lots of people are affected and feel helpless. Some headway is being made that mental health issues have to be addressed because the consequences of doing nothing are much more costly," he said.

Power said that, although the Veteran's Administration and other government agencies had sometimes been less than proactive when dealing with mental health issues, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration had been proactive.

Today, LaTasha Peeler receives weekly counseling, and she's waiting to move into a new home paid for with government vouchers.

She said she would consult the Web site to see if there were other places, like churches, where she could receive more help and was happy the government was helping people hurt by the economy.

"I would check out the Web site," she said. "It's good that government wants to help people. People are suffering. They have a lot of problems. And when you don't have a job or a home, it's good to hear you still got options."

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