Weekly Column – May 2009
Dr. David Prescott – Acadia Hospital
The economic downturn has impacted almost every person and every profession. Some of the challenges are personal. We all know colleagues, friends, and neighbors who have lost jobs or who unable to find jobs. Some of the challenges are professional. For psychology and other mental health professionals, I believe the greatest challenge of our current time is to help people cope with the emotional stress that accompanies economic hard times. This requires every bit of our collective skill and wisdom.
During times of economic hardship many people experience tremendous loss. For those who may not be directly hit with losing a job, a house, or a standard of living, the anxiety and worry about the possibility of such a loss can be almost as bad as the real thing. Stressors like these begin to exact a psychological toll on all of us. Earlier this year, mental health and suicide crisis lines began reporting an increase of 30% or more in calls, when compared to the previous year. As the economic barometer fell, the number of people who felt close to their psychological breaking point began to rise.
Along with most other psychologists, I was attracted to my profession because I wanted to help people. Helping people who are hurting, either emotionally or physically, is a privilege. There is no feeling quite like the one you get when you help make someone feel better. And yet, on the other side of the coin, there is no feeling quite like the frustration of finding out that someone who needed help didn't receive it.
Over the past year a number of stories, both public and private, have been told to me of people who took their own life. From what I have learned some of these people did get help for depression, addiction, or other problems. In other cases, it looks like their deepest struggles were largely known only to themselves. The frustrating part is the knowledge that, even in the most extreme moments of a psychological crisis, the odds are good that the situation can be worked through. We just need that chance to help.
You don't always know when you are helping someone through a time of extreme emotional crisis. I recall early on in my career co-leading a therapy group for college students. One member of the group was the kind of person you hope that your own child turns out to be. Well liked, good student, responsible, balanced. Towards the end of a semester, this student revealed that a few weeks ago they had been close to taking their own life. Talking in the group about their struggles (without mentioning their thoughts of suicide) had helped them see things in a slightly different way and helped them feel just a little less hopeless. At the time, neither me nor the other therapist had any idea what was truly going on. We were fortunate that the power of simply talking with others had been enough.
If you or someone you know starts to feel that sense of a psychological breaking point, realize that a few simple steps can help carry you through that difficult time. Talking about your concerns really does help. Mental health crisis lines and suicide hot lines are staffed all day, every day. In Maine, you can call 1-888-568-1112 to talk to someone about any problem at any time.
Talking to other people helps you develop ideas and solutions that you are unlikely to think about on your own. One hallmark of a psychological crisis is that people's ability to generate potential solutions to problems becomes very narrow. By yourself, you really cannot think of anything else to do. However, there are thousands of ways to tackle a problem, no matter how overwhelming. Every crisis has its resolution. You just need to let others help you through the most difficult part.