Easing the stress of hard times

A combination of high unemployment figures locally, along with record-breaking numbers of foreclosures, have contributed to a significant increase in demand for mental health services in Archuleta County.

“We’re seeing a dramatic increase since September,” said Tom Bonde, VP of Clinical Services with the Southwest Colorado Mental Health Center (SWCMHC) and manager of the Pagosa Counseling Center, “particularly in the Pagosa Springs office.”

According to Annee Kuehler, administrative/clinician assistant for the Pagosa Counseling Center, new clients, whether in crisis, referral, or returning clients, averaged about five to seven a month prior to September 2008. Those numbers jumped, Kuehler said, as the economy lost ground last fall. In October, the center saw 21 new clients, 17 more new clients each in November and December, and 25 new clients in January 2009.

“The number of new clients for walk-in and crisis has been more than double what we normally get,” said Bonde. “It’s been dramatic.”

That increase has not only been seen by local mental health service agencies, but also by local therapists.

“Not only am I seeing an increase in the number of clients seeking counseling,” said Kathy Allen, a private therapist in Pagosa Springs, “but I’m seeing an increase in economic issues with clients. People have an increase in fear in losing more,” Allen continued, “and as a result, I’m seeing an increase in the levels of violence and just hearing that a lot of people are losing their homes, losing their sense of security.”

With local unemployment numbers the highest they’ve been in over 10 years — 8.2 percent in Archuleta County for January 2009 — and local foreclosures at an all-time high (44 so far this year, compared with 35 the same time last year and only six foreclosures for the same time period in 2006), it is hardly surprising that more local residents are seeking help for stresses brought on by a distressed economy.

In fact, the increased need for mental health services in the Pagosa area mirrors a nationwide trend. A Gallup survey reported earlier this month that increasing numbers of Americans are suffering emotionally, as well as financially.

The survey of 355,334 people produced a so-called Emotional Health Index (EHI), a measure weighing negatives such as depression, worry and stress against the positive feelings a person experienced the day before the survey. The report indicated that stress shot up over the last year, peaking in the fall and winter with the intensification of the economic crisis, a trend that continued well through February.

Results of the survey also showed that emotional well-being was affected by economic news and those measures indicated a significant drop with reports of high jobless rates or when the Dow lost big. Furthermore, overall emotional well-being dropped, driven largely by declines in mental health for the poorest people.

Cutting across racial and cultural lines, the economy has dealt a double whammy to the unemployed and the recently unemployed, as those numbers add significantly to the numbers of uninsured, both nationally and locally. According to a report released earlier this month by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, lower-income people and people lacking health insurance seeking counseling for recession-related stress may have to wait a long time for help — or may never get help at all.

During the Bush administration, funding for mental health services was severely cut, with the deepest cuts occurring within the last year. Furthermore, the Bush administration almost completely disabled Medicaid’s ability to cover mental health costs, cutting most lower-income people off from mental health services. As mental health agencies cut services and staff to answer depleted resources, the result severely strained the mental health system’s ability to meet increasing needs for services.

“We also see an increase in people who have not been seen previously who are seeking assistance due to job loss or other economic hardships,” said Pam Wise Romero, Ph.D., SWCMHC Executive Vice President, “as well as anxiety/worry about these same issues. We have a large number of un- or under-insured residents and this is the group that struggles the most to pay for healthcare of all kinds. Once again, this need increases acute care provided through our emergency services and crisis line.”

The strain is not only felt by the clients in need but by the service providers, as well.

“Not only are our therapists and counselors busier than normal, with an increased work load,” said Bonde, “but there’s a sense of helplessness and that helplessness is an added stress factor for our therapists.”

Bonde stated that since therapists are members of the community and are often closely acquainted with clients and their situations, the therapists are painfully aware that the economic factors lack simple solutions and that, unfortunately, those factors generally show no sign of improving in the near future.

“They just don’t know what to tell them,” Bonde said.

Despite a strain on services due to increased demand, the Pagosa area community has not entirely lost the ability to serve the needs of residents suffering the most from the economic crisis.

According to Pastor Don Ford, representing the Pagosa Springs United Methodist Church, “We’ve seen an increase in requests for assistance, for sure. The number of food boxes that we give out has increased by about fifty percent and the numbers of people seeking shelter has increased about fifty percent. I’m also seeing an increase in requests of those seeking emotional, spiritual and mental assistance in dealing with the economic situation.”

Terry Schaaf, representing the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, also reports a strain on the system, saying, “We have seen an increase in people from the community seeking financial and spiritual assistance due to economic issues.”

Despite the increased need, both Schaaf and Ford say that, so far, the churches (and the Pagosa Outreach Connection) have been able to meet some of the needs of all those seeking help. “The community as a whole has been good about pulling together through these tough times,” Ford said.

Schaaf agreed, saying, “People are wonderful in this community. Every time we’ve asked for help to feed someone, the help has been there.”

However, Ford was realistic in assessing the situation, saying, “We haven’t hit bottom yet.”

Indeed, most economists agree that, even if President Obama’s stimulus plan miraculously turns the economy around, the jobless rate will get worse — by as much as 10 percent by the end of the year.

According to the last Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 12.5 million Americans are now out of work (compared with 7.4 million a year ago), a jobless rate of 8.1 percent. However, factoring in the numbers of long-term unemployed, “discouraged” workers and those who work part-time but would prefer to work full-time, the jobless rate jumps to 14.8 percent — almost 23 million Americans.

Although Colorado unemployment numbers are better than the national numbers, 7.2 percent in February (the highest it’s been since June 1987, but still not as high as the 9.1 percent unemployment rate from November 1982), the situation, similar to the national forecast, is only expected to get worse.

Hoping to be proactive in the face of a failing economy, area hospitals and agencies are planning to offer community outreach to help mitigate some of the mental health issues affecting area residents. The Pagosa Mountain Hospital will make stress management and crisis management classes available to the public within the next few months, said Linda Mozer, director of Nursing and Patient Care Services at the hospital.

SWCMHC will provide a free seminar at the Pagosa Springs Community Center on April 22, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., titled “Stress Management in a Stressful Economy.” Topics at the seminar will include Stress Management, Financial Coping Strategies, Simplifying Your life in today’s Economy and Specific Resources to Assist Qualifying Individuals and Families.

According to Kuehler, “This seminar will provide local resources and helpful tools for individuals and families and will be an opportunity for community members to meet SWCMHC staff and openly discuss present concerns.”

As the recession continues to deepen and unemployment climbs, the strain on the mental health system will most certainly increase. However, area residents in crisis, with emotional problems exacerbated by tough economic times, should know that although resources may be strained, they are nonetheless available.

“With the increase in fear,” Allen said, “I feel they’re holding onto themselves instead of reaching out. I’m seeing increasing isolation and they need to reach out.”

jim@pagosasun.com