Worried about the economy? You aren’t alone. With mounting concerns about higher unemployment rates, increasing numbers of home foreclosures and gas prices that are skyrocketing affecting the price of many other items such as food and building materials, it is not unusual to be anxious about the current economy.
Mental healthcare professionals are seeing more economic-related anxiety and stress being reported by their patients.
“Economic and financial issues have certainly been more common topics of therapy sessions with patients I’m working with at my center,” says Dr. Donald B. Penzien, professor of psychiatry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson. “Especially among patients with anxiety and depression, the apparent economic downturn is a much more common topic of conversation. Another thing affecting us is some patients have not been able to stay in therapy because they haven’t been able to afford the fee.”
Often mental health coverage by insurance companies is less than for other types of illnesses. For example, co-pays are generally greater than with other types of services.
“With current trends, insurers and third-party payer are tightening their belts because the cost of healthcare is going up along with the cost of everything else,” Penzien says. “It is getting more difficult for patients to be able to afford psychological services at a time when anxiety and depression are on the rise in part because of financial pressures.”
Penzien says it could be worthwhile for employers to at least acknowledge this is a stressful and difficult time for many individuals and families. Let employees know you take the situation seriously.
Employers could be under even more stress than their employees.
“I’m sure they are suffering from this, too,” Penzien says. “Most employers really care about their employees. The employers are worrying not just about keeping the business afloat, but keeping workers employed. It is devastating when they have to cut back hours or cut back the number of employees.”
Regardless of the reality…
Uncertainties can be more stressful than certainties. When one just doesn’t know what the future holds, regardless of what the reality is, that is often very, very stressful.
“When things are ambiguous, it is hard to take,” he says. “There is nothing that says we won’t be just fine and things will turn a corner in a few months. The predictions aren’t that dire. But people just don’t know. Ambiguity is sometimes just as stressful as something that is definitely negative out there. There are concerns about the unknown. Then the truth is people already under stress who tend to be anxious or depressed will tend to interpret ambiguous situations more negatively than others people. They are already having to struggle and don’t know what future will bring, so it tends to be difficult to deal with.”
Bob Corban, director of behavioral health at the North Mississippi Medical Center, Tupelo, says patients are concerned about the economy but he doesn’t think people are coming in with economic concerns as their primary problem.
“It is the part of the overall picture,” Corban says. “It complicates things and makes the overall situation more intense and difficult to handle. If you are prone to depression, the economic picture makes it a little more intense or complicated.
“Everyone is already doing what they think they can do to adjust economically. For example, people are downsizing as far as vehicles, taking fewer trips and trying to combine trips and be as economical as possible.”
‘We will make it’
Employers who have been around for a while could remind employees of previous economic downturns, and point out that the business weathered that storm. And tell employees: “We will make it through this as well.”
“People my age will remember the Arab oil embargo in the 70s, and we made it through that,” Corban says. “There was a lot of fear and uncertainly after the 9-11 attacks, and some economic impact from that. There were issues after Katrina when there were high gas prices because of refinery outages, but that worked its way through the system in a number of months. The Coast is still rebuilding, and the economic difficulty is more isolated and confined.”
Corban says while this economic downturn appears to be more systemic than others in the past, it is important to get some context and keep things in perspective.
“It is difficult and there is some hardship, more on some people than others,” Corban says. “But we will find a way to adjust. Know what things are real luxuries, what things are nice and what things we must have.”
He added the employers may consider modifications such as a four-day workweek to reduce costs for employees commuting, allowing telecommuting when possible and encouraging people to carpool.
It is natural that everyone is a little worried, says William Gasparrini, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, Applied Psychology Center, Biloxi.
“From clients and friends to co-workers, everyone seems to be concerned about the financial pressures of this current economic climate,” Gasparrini says. “There is the increased cost of gasoline, the risk of unemployment, the cost of health insurance, the uncertainly about stock values and low interest rates for people who are retired and trying to live on an income from their savings. All this contributes to anxiety. But I haven’t seen anyone who came in for counseling just because of concerns about the economy.”
Biloxi is a tourist town, and gross gaming receipts have decreased because of the cost of travel. That has locals concerned about impacts to tourism and the local economy. Gasparrini says people also have concerns about the value of their homes. They worry that if they have to move and sell their house, they could have trouble selling the house for as much as they owe.
“The housing crisis affects people’s perception of their own financial well-being,” he says. “Even if they are not selling their house, they know it isn’t worth as much as it was.”
Gasparrini says employers could help by, if they are confident no layoffs will be necessary, assuring employees about that issue.
“Encourage employees to see the financial stability of the business is in the best interest of everyone,” he says. “If everyone works together, they can make the business a success and everyone will remain stable and secure.”
He also thinks that everyone should work together to conserve gasoline because if that is done on a wide enough scale, it will decrease demand and temper increases in prices.
“The whole supply-demand curve requires demand be decreased in order to stabilize prices,” Gasparrini says. “Definitely if people can consolidate their trips, carpool, walk or ride bikes and use public transit to get to work, that is going to help them financially and help the whole country.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.