Many more feel so much shame about their financial and emotional distress that they shut themselves off, too fearful to ask for help, mental health workers report. Entire families suffer as stress radiates from debt-plagued parents to their frightened children, they say.
The trickle-down of this is big. Kids have stomach aches. They dont want to go to school. Then you find out theyve just moved in with someone else, their parents are about to lose their homes, theyre having trouble paying the mortgage, said Elizabeth Morrison, clinical director of behavioral health at Golden Valley Health Centers, a network of 25 nonprofit community clinics and eight dental sites serving the Merced area.
School leaders are concerned, too. In the Merced Union High School District, which covers students in all of Merced, Atwater and Livingston, 613 students, or 7 percent, reported this year that they were doubled-up with another family in a single-family home. At Atwater High School, the number was 12 percent.
Some residents fear they soon will have no home at all.
I dont want to end up at that tent camp on Santa Fe, said one middle-aged woman, who lost her job last year. She asked that her name not be used because shes looking for employment. Its terrifying for a single person to live in a car, she said.
Another woman, also facing foreclosure, swallows Lexapro and a stew of other anti-depression and anti-anxiety drugs just to make it through the day.
The same economic downturn tied to the real estate crisis is savaging the California state budget, provoking massive cuts in mental health care throughout the state.
Merced County government has seen its number of mental health clinicians cut to 24 from 33 at a time when it needs more counselors, not fewer. Each outpatient nurse's case load has increased by 125 cases due to the latest staff cuts last September.
In all, county workers' caseload of ongoing mental health patients has grown from 2,365 in all of the last fiscal year to 2,229 for only the first six months of this one.
Yet a key piece of the department's budget was cut in half last year in Sacramento, meaning that Merced County lost $1.1 million earmarked for inpatient and crisis care.
The county's mental health director, Manuel Jimenez, reports that he, too, grappled with stress when he was forced to lay off employees last year. Now he's preparing for possible new cuts caused by the latest state budget deficit.
Local clinics are squeezed as well. Patients referred for mental health care used to wait a week or two to see a counselor at the Family Care Clinic at Mercy Medical Center Merced. Today, they may wait a month for an appointment, a clinical psychologist there said.
No statistics are available for exactly how many county residents seeking mental health help are dealing with home foreclosures. Nor has much medical research been conducted on how the wave of foreclosures can affect public health nationwide.
However, an article published in October in the American Journal of Public Health reported on a study of Philadelphia area residents undergoing foreclosure in the summer of 2008.
The findings are grim. More than one-third of those residents met the screening standards for major depression, such as feelings of sadness and changes in appetite or sleep patterns, said the article's lead author, Dr. Craig E. Pollack, a Rand Corp. researcher and assistant professor of medicine at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. That compares to about 13 percent for people living in poverty.