Problems can start small and pile on quickly

01/30/2010 1:26 AM

01/30/2010 8:05 AM

Elizabeth Morrison, clinical director of behavioral health at Golden Valley Health Centers, sat down to answer a few questions about our community's foreclosure and mental health crises:

What are the warning signs of stress that deserve to be checked out by a professional?

The most common early warning sign is sleep difficulty. It's definitely one of those signs that, if not resolved in a short period of time, can result in increased problems. Then there are somatic complaints -- stomach aches, headaches. This is true in children, too. They don't say they're feeling stress; they say they have a stomach ache. Uncontrollable worry should also be checked out. Worry that doesn't ever end, or shifts from one issue to another, is an early warning sign for stress that could lead to something worse.

What are the signs of depression?

I always say depression is not just a feeling. We often say that it is a feeling, which is why when people have depression, others will say, why don't you just cheer up? People with depression could sleep too much, or sleep too little. They could have appetite problems, like eating too much or having no appetite at all. They also suffer from feelings of hopelessness.

And of course, they may have thoughts of suicide. Or they could feel like they want to die; not that they want to kill themselves, but that they wouldn't mind not being alive tomorrow. Those are really quite common with depression.

If someone is feeling these symptoms, what should he or she do?

Run, not walk, to a professional. Our worry for people with depression is that there is a stigma about it. To go to a doctor or a mental health professional is a great first step. There are many types of treatment, not just medicine, which I know some people worry about. There are plenty of interventions. The important thing is just to get care.

Why might people in foreclosure feel so much stress, or even depression?

Stress from foreclosure is really common, partly because foreclosure is such a long, drawn-out process. Chronic stress over time frequently leads to depression and anxiety. Foreclosures go on for months, with residents not knowing what is going to happen, and being fearful, having conversations with the bank. That kind of ongoing, really high level of stress is part of the reason it can lead to depression and anxiety.

Are there enough resources in Merced County right now to treat people who need help?

No. There aren't enough resources, and the reality is, there weren't enough resources before this crisis. Mental health has always been thought of as an extra, or an add-on, something that can be cut, or taken away.

There's a lifetime prevalence of mental health problems at 80 percent, so 80 percent of us will have suffered a mental health disorder at some time in our life. It is so common in normal everyday ups and downs. In a time like this, with so much stress and so much displacement, there absolutely aren't enough resources. This area is considered undeserved in terms of primary care, so it would definitely be an underserved area for mental health.

All over the country, mental health has been cut significantly over the last several years, so it has set a bad stage. Mental health funding for communities went down, then there was this dramatic increase in foreclosures, so it really created the perfect storm for increased mental health problems -- and then under treatment.

How can a community like Merced come together to deal with this problem?

When there are things like natural disasters that happen, there typically is this large community response. So there are resources advertised on the radio, there are public health announcements that speak to the community as a whole, or a classroom as a whole, there are these public interventions or attempts to help.

We haven't seen a response as a whole community to our whole community. I think because it's like foreclosure: it's long and its drawn out. Nobody knew how bad it was going to be or how bad it is going to get.

To go back to stigma, the idea of a community response, or public health response, is the anti-stigma. This is a problem that affects all of us. Meaning if it hasn't affected you, it has affected someone in your family, it has affected your friends, it has affected our community.

Elizabeth Morrison, 39, lives in Merced, has two children, a boy and a girl. She was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and grew up there. She was drawn to mental health as a career and earned her master's of social work degree at UCLA. She's worked at Golden Valley Health Center for five years, and she oversees nine mental health clinicians. Golden Valley offers mental health counseling at 12 locations in Merced and Stanislaus counties.

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