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Stress of these difficult days is pushing many into mental illness

It's all weighing pretty heavily on Barbara Smith, a widowed grandmother who lives in the Black Rock section of Buffalo.

She fears layoffs are coming soon at her job a local nonprofit agency. That's on top of the hours that were cut recently at her part-time job at a local florist.

And don't forget the weather: the very cold, very snowy past weeks, followed by a couple of days of warming, then 60-mph winds and wet snow that knocked out power to more than 50,000 homes and businesses.

"I guess the news is bad for everybody," Smith said, "and it just seems to get worse."

All this contributes to what experts call the new face of mental illness.

Doom and gloom seem to have dominated the news lately.

Consider the headlines:

*A global economic crisis.

*A recession here at home.

*The near-daily tally of job cuts at large companies worldwide.

*Record snow and frigid temperatures locally, then flooding and a wind storm.

*Gasoline prices creeping up again after receding from record highs.

"There's a lot of bad news," said Brian D. Barnas, a University at Buffalo student. "That's the times we're in right now. That's what's going on in the world."

As a result, many Americans are facing fear, anxiety, uncertainty and stress.

The despair and desperation that come with such feelings is the "modern face of mental illness," said Thomas P. McNulty, president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association of Erie County.

Many people have heard of schizophrenia, bipolarity, and eating and personality disorders, McNulty said.

"But today the modern face of mental illness includes mortgage crises, job loss, people stressed to the limit financially. It's an entirely different emotional situation," McNulty said. "The modern-day things we can face can turn into a severe emotional disturbance."

All the doom and gloom makes Julie Quinn, a 28-year-old Amherst resident who is engaged to be married, feel like she's at an impasse.

"All the bad news lately makes me feel like I'm stuck. There's no change. I don't feel change is coming," she said.

The stretch of very cold weather and consistent snow days only adds to the feeling there is no end in sight, McNulty said.

"It makes it difficult to get up in the morning. It makes for longer drives home. It causes problems with schedules because of snow days. You may slip on the sidewalk, or sidewalks that aren't cleared block your way," he said. "It just adds to the aggravations."

The news might not get better anytime soon.

President Obama already has warned that the economy will get worse before it gets better. The list of large companies cutting jobs keeps growing. And officially, there's still five weeks of winter left.

"It's the same bad news over and over," said 59-year-old Tom Shilanski, a General Motors retiree who lives in North Tonawanda. "That's the way the country is going. It's crazy."

"I feel bad for the next generation," said Shilanski's wife, Linda, who retired from state government in 2004.

The couple's 38-year-old son was laid off from Newspress. Their 34-year-old son was laid off from Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems. And their daughter, who can't find a job, lives in the house next door, which the Shilanskis own.

"It's sad," she said. "What's going to be there for them?"

Emily Tolnay and Jenna Murray wonder the same. The young women, both 18, are fashion design majors at Buffalo State College. They said the bad news affects them, too.

"Yeah, our professors are telling us that we should start looking for a job now," said Tolnay, even though they are only freshmen.

"It's a little bit scary right now," Murray said. "It can all start feeling really heavy."

The critical point is that there are certain things people can do to survive tough times, experts say.

"There is no magic potion. There is no magic solution," but there are things people can do "to have a more successful outcome," McNulty said.

"First, reach out because you are not alone. You are not the only one experiencing this. We all got sideswiped and surprised by it," he said.

Take steps before reaching the snapping point, as two California men recently did. One killed his wife, five young children and himself after the couple were fired from their hospital jobs. The other donned a Santa Claus suit and went on a Christmas Eve massacre, killing his ex-wife, eight of her relatives and himself. Recently divorced, the man had been laid off from his six-figure job in the aerospace industry and his ex-wife was awarded spousal support as his debts stacked up.

"The economy, layoffs, gas prices. It's more than people want to hear. It's a lot," said Melissa Stroka, a Canisius College student.

Dr. Judith Orloff agreed. A practicing psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, Orloff said even in the midst of doom and gloom, stay focused. In a phone interview, she also offered tips on what people can do to avoid panic and emotional distress.

For one, stay in the present and don't wander into the future.

"Don't go to worst-case scenarios; that just fuels the fear. Stay focused on what you have to be grateful for," said Orloff, author of books on managing fear, depression and anxiety brought on by economic crises.

Second, don't be addicted to fear.

"Don't keep watching those newscasts. You can be informed, but people are addicted to news on television, then they keep getting this horrible news in their brains over and over," she said.

Also, attract positive people around you, not emotional vampires.

"They can be very negative, and they will bring you down. Instead, have a positive support system to encourage you to do what you can each day to make things better," she said.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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