Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Financial strain threatens mental health

Amy Scott May 1, 2009
Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Financial strain threatens mental health

Amy Scott May 1, 2009


TESS VIGELAND: We’ve received lots of letters expressing the difficulties of living through this recession. You’ve lost jobs. You’ve lost entire nest eggs. You’re wondering how you’ll get to the next paycheck. It’s a trying time, emotionally, for many, many people. You’ve probably heard the stories of some who just couldn’t take it anymore, and committed suicide. But as Marketplace’s Amy Scott tells us, the economy is rarely the only factor in these cases.

Amy Scott: A listener wrote into the show recently. I’ll call him Cliff. His wife made some real estate investments during the boom that didn’t work out. The banks called several times a day. The mail was piling up. Cliff said he’d been having trouble sleeping. He’d been thinking about suicide. He agreed to share his story if we disguised his voice.

Cliff: The last year and a half has been really tough. Quite a few sleepless nights, worrying about, you know, millions of dollars of mortgage debt. It’s a nightmare.

Cliff got some legal help. He’s now considering bankruptcy. He says he felt a lot better when he learned he wouldn’t have to lose his home.

Cliff: I just didn’t know how I would cope with it, and how I would handle it. And I think what has really relieved that stress is talking to an attorney — a bankruptcy attorney — and finding out where you stand legally.

Many people don’t get help soon enough. Stories have been popping up of people in dire financial straits who’ve taken their own lives. But experts say while financial stress may have played a role in some cases, it’s usually just one factor. Sherry’s husband Tom ended his life last June. She didn’t want us to use her last name to protect her children. She had lost her job. Tom sold used cars, and his sales were down. But Sherry says she now knows there was a lot more going on.

Sherry: I do think that financial stress was a contributing factor, but it was part of a much bigger picture. I believe that my husband suffered from serious depression, and did so for a pretty long time.

Lanny Berman is executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.

Lanny Berman: We know that about 90 percent of all completed suicides occur among people who retrospectively can be diagnosed as having a significant mental disorder.

He says those disorders include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and schizophrenia. For someone who’s already vulnerable, a job loss or foreclosure — like any loss — can trigger a crisis. But Berman says fears of a recession-related epidemic are unfounded. He says, while suicide rates did increase slightly during the Great Depression…

Berman: We’ve had something in the way of a dozen or more recessions since the Great Depression and most of those have been relatively short-lived. And there’s been no evident relationship between those recessions and subsequent suicide rates.

Studies have shown some links between unemployment and suicide. Anara Guard is Deputy Director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. She says, especially for men, the loss of a job can threaten their very identity.

Anara Guard: Their work may be who they most feel who they are, and when they lose that and lose the capacity to support their family, it’s that change in role, not just the change in economic status that can be so hard to incorporate into one’s new sense of life and who you are.

Guard says the connection between unemployment and suicide is complicated. When people lose their jobs, they may also lose their access to mental health care and other resources. But there are free and low-cost options out there.

Guard says many cities have community mental health centers that offer counseling on a sliding scale.

Guard: I think it’s important for listeners and their family members to reach out in many different ways. They can turn to their clergyman or Rabbi if they have one, to family, friends, their doctors, mental health providers, employee assistance providers, if they still have one. And I really encourage people, don’t just turn in one direction. You may have to turn in many directions to get enough support to get you through these tough times.

Cliff, the listener who wrote in about his financial troubles, turned to legal help. Others may need medical help. Sherry, who lost her husband last year, says she believes if he’d had psychiatric care, he’d still be alive today.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace Money.


If you or someone you know may be suicidal, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Warning Signs of Acute Risk:

A person in acute risk for suicidal behavior most often will act in the following ways:

Threatening to hurt or kill himself or herself, or talking of wanting to hurt or kill himself/herself; and/or looking for ways to kill himself/herself by seeking access to firearms, pills or other means; and/or talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary.

These might be remembered as expressed or communicated ideation. If observed, seek help as soon as possible by contacting a mental health professional or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a referral.

Additional Warning Signs:

–Increased substance (alcohol or drug) use
–No reason for living; no sense of purpose in life
–Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
–Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out
–Withdrawal from friends, family and society
–Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
–Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
–Dramatic mood changes.

If observed, seek help as soon as possible by contacting a mental health professional or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a referral.

Some tips for coping with financial-related stress:

Anara Guard, deputy director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, offers this advice for getting through a job loss or other financial difficulty:

“If you can’t reduce the stress itself, try to change how you handle the stress as much as possible. It sounds trivial, but they’re not trivial. All of the ways in which we normally try to take care of ourselves: Going for walks, don’t forget to exercise, eat as well as you can, try to get sleep, try not to become insomniac and sleep-deprived, turn to friends, don’t forget the small things in life that gave you pleasure before that might still be capable of giving you pleasure now, cherish what you have. All of that can help build up your resilience in the same way of increasing your immune system. It’s how we get through tough times, is to get as tough and as resilient as possible in order to accommodate these tremendous stresses that we’re under.”

If you’re suffering from depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, or panic attacks, seek the help of a doctor or mental health professional.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.