As we all watched on TV and felt firsthand when we pay our monthly bills, we have been in the midst of an economic meltdown not seen since the Depression of the 1930’s. The Stock Market tanked, the housing market crashed, foreclosures reached all-time highs, and many people lost their homes and life savings. In addition, there is rampant unemployment, businesses large and small are downsizing, people have lost their medical insurance, and many are having difficulty affording basic necessities.
I can’t think of a worse situation for everyday people who are suddenly being thrown into their own personal or family crisis due to the downturn in the economy. To suddenly lose one’s job, home, and life savings is a horrible thing to go through. I know, because I lost all of these things during my illness. I can’t help but also be deeply concerned about the economy’s impact on people with mental illness and other disabilities, and for the vital community services that provide vital services to them on a daily basis.
During my battle with depression, I had to take advantage of numerous treatment and support services that make up the mental health system of care, including: in-patient and out-patient hospital services, community day-treatment programs, entitlement advocacy programs, supportive housing agencies, vocational programs, and consumer clubhouse and drop-in centers. During my illness I was living in the Metro-NY area where I was fortunate to have access to all of these services. However, such a menu of service providers may not exist in every community, especially in more rural areas where it is not uncommon to have one mental health center that addresses all or some of these services under one roof.
Some may ask why so many different services are really needed to help someone get well? I can honestly tell you that they are not only needed but can be the difference between life and death for someone who has suddenly fallen ill to a serious mental illness. It is hard to describe unless you’ve been there yourself.
The sudden onset of a serious depression or other emotional disorder can grab hold of a person’s life much like an avalanche grabs hold of the side of a mountain. At the very beginning of the event it may appear as only a minor disruption, but as it progresses it destroys everything in its path.
Based on my own personal experience, I have always believed that mental illness, and caring for someone with one, is not an exact science. There are so many differences in the symptoms each person might have—even with the same diagnosis. Similarly, the same medication may help some people and not others. Often, a mix of medications may be necessary to find the right chemistry that will help a person feel better. This may take weeks or months of trial and error to find the right medication(s) that work.
The reason that a community of treatment and support services are such a lifeline to people who develop a mental illness is the extreme free-falling nature of the experience for many. Much like a skydiver jumping out of a plane you are in a free-fall with your symptoms hoping that your chute will open for a smooth and safe landing. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. For an adult (as I was) the experience is even more unnerving because you are responsible for providing for yourself and your family. As your illness emerges, your symptoms interfere with your daily life—so much so that in some cases that you are unable to function at work. There isn’t always that much leeway given to you to get back on track, and managing the normally simple responsibilities of your life can come crashing down on you quite suddenly in only a few days or weeks. You may then have to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital as I was, and when you come out you may feel a bit better, but the world you once knew may not be the same. In my case, I had lost my job and felt a great embarrassment and humiliation—unable to explain my condition to my employer, friends and family. Thus, this first breakdown triggered a series of unexpected changes in my life beginning with the collapse of my ability to support myself on a daily basis. That only added to the emotional distress of my illness that took over ten years to struggle through. If it were not for all the services that I previously mentioned I would not have survived. I had lost everything, and was forced to fall into that safety-net. Thank heaven it was there to catch me.
Community mental health organizations and other disability and support services are feeling the squeeze that the economy has placed on them. State and local governments are in a terrible crisis and most are unable to meet budgets that fund essential services to communities everywhere. The nonprofit sector is reeling. Some organizations are losing their entire budgets and are being forced to close, while others are having to let staff members go, while trying to provide the same or increasing service demands with an even smaller workforce. This may have a serious impact on people with mental illness who rely on these services and the people who deliver them. Unfortunately, there have always been cracks in the mental health care system that caused some people to not get the care that they needed. It is likely that we will begin to see even larger cracks in our community services network as a result of the struggling economy. How will this affect the most vulnerable people in our society? Will the safety-net remain in place?
We all have basic needs for food, shelter, friends and family, a sense of worth and wellbeing (that comes about by having a meaningful life), and a positive and nurturing feeling that we are part of a supportive community in which we live. When I recently moved from the Metro-NY area to a somewhat rural part of Northeast Pennsylvania, I found I had left behind a sense of community that I had developed over the years I lived in supportive housing in New York following my illness. They say you don’t appreciate the things you have until you lose them. It may sound trivial, but little things that I came to enjoy where I used to live are harder to find now. Things like having a cup of coffee at the deli down the block and seeing familiar faces just outside my door on a daily basis had become a part of who I was at that time in my life. Moving to a new location, means having to develop an entirely new social network that may not equal the one you had.
It may be difficult to measure the impact today’s economy is having on everyday people, some of whom are being uprooted from their familiar surroundings due to losing their job or their home. Many are being forced to move when their home goes into foreclosure, and many who have recently lost their jobs may take whatever job they can find—even if it means moving to another location far from where they now live. For a single person it is certainly traumatic, but when families are uprooted it may have far deeper psychological consequences for parents and their young children. This is also true where a parent has to travel a long distance to a new job, or has to relocate to another city in order to work and provide for their families. This can certainly put a strain on families and can be a huge emotional hardship for the parent forced to live away from home for long periods of time.
Let’s hope that the economic recession will be over soon, and that local and state government can stem the tide of budget cuts to the nonprofit sector. Too much is at stake in an already stressed system of care. Perhaps in meeting dwindling budgets, organizations will find ways to be more cost effective while still delivering the highest level of care to their clients. This will be a real challenge and something we will continue to follow here at Mental Health News.
Good luck in your recovery, never give up, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.