As the recession continues to devastate our economy, one of the few professions benefiting from the downturn is the mental health industry. This sad irony is highlighted by media reports of suicides related to people’s financial situations. One Johns Hopkins University sociologist has even calculated that for every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, there’s an additional 47,000 deaths from suicides, heart attacks, homicides, and alcohol consumption.
To put it in perspective, UrbanFaith talked to LaTonya Mason, a North Carolina-based mental health therapist, about trends she’s observed with her clients and how faith can play a role in helping people cope with their financial difficulties. Mason owns novelist, and the host of her own daily .in Charlotte and is the cofounder of the . A devoted believer, she is also a licensed minister, Christian
URBANFAITH: Have you noticed an increase in clients who are struggling with financial issues?
LATONYA MASON: Absolutely. It’s interesting to note, however, that talking directly about money continues to be taboo. My clients report every symptom under the sun and list as many stressors as they can think of, except for money. So, I ask about their financial wellbeing and often learn that it is their biggest stressor and that it’s affecting every other area of their lives.
How do money woes play themselves out in our behaviors, and how do you see it affecting relationships?
People who are stressed about money feel depressed, hopeless, and overwhelmed. It’s hard for them to get out of bed in the mornings. They are anxious. They feel trapped by incoming bills and calls from collectors. They are irritable and short with everyone. They are detached and either sleep more or less, and eat more or less. Many feel like failures when it comes to the family. They feel like they’re not holding up their end of the bargain. It’s hard to feel like a good parent when you’re worried about how you’re going to feed the family, let alone how you’re going to buy a much-needed coat or pair of shoes. When you’re financially stressed, it seems like when it rains it pours.
In January a California man shot his wife, their five young children, and then himself after he and his wife lost their jobs. Many people couldn’t believe that a loving husband and father could do such an evil thing. But that husband and father’s mindset could actually have been one of protection. That’s what a father does. Seeing no other way possible to provide for a family of seven, he decided to protect them from having to beg, go hungry, or be homeless. To be financially stressed is a totally different frame of mind that can quickly go from rational to irrational.
There have been several incidents reported in the media of people, usually men, committing suicide and possibly killing others because of a job loss or other financial struggles. What can we do to protect ourselves and others from entertaining those kinds of destructive thoughts?
The media often plays up some of these incidents to make them seem more widespread than they are, but we definitely need to be sensitive to how financial frustrations are affecting us and those around us. Of course, as a therapist, I suggest counseling to deal with suicidal feelings. And I encourage people to take seriously anyone who talks about suicide.
In working with clients, I try to validate their feelings as much as possible. People just want to know that they are not the only ones struggling, feeling afraid, or feeling crazy because of their circumstances. I let them know that it’s okay to feel the way they do; these are scary times. But I challenge them to find constructive options. I encourage them to look at things differently–especially spiritually–and I try to empower them with practical coping skills.
Do you think these times are harder or easier for folks who were already struggling to make it between each paycheck, as opposed to those who are experiencing financial hardship for the first time?
I think it’s hard for both, but it’s probably harder for folks who are not used to financial worry. There are those of us who are accustomed to struggling, and that’s not a bad thing, because we know how to make something out of nothing. We know how to wait, or how to hustle to make ends meet. We’re resilient. During the good times, I try to warn people against complacency and developing high tolerances for poverty and the hardships of others. When we’re doing well, we should not be disconnected from the suffering around us.
Many of those who are not used to struggling are panicking now. My counseling approach is different for them. I try to be sensitive to their situations. But what I teach them is no different from what I teach those who are used to struggling.
How can churches help to address issues of depression and mental wellness in these challenging times?
What I teach as a therapist, I also teach as a minister. The Bible is full of examples of financially stressed people at their wit’s end–the widow with the vial of oil in 2 Kings 4, the four lepers in 2 Kings 7, the Hebrew exiles in Jeremiah 29. I use these examples to teach how to operate in tough times. I believe that wellness is a frame of mind. And, oftentimes, as a people we have not been taught how to handle stress and depression. We’re taught what not to do–don’t talk, don’t ask for anything, don’t trust anyone for anything, etc. But we don’t know what to do. I think churches should offer Bible studies, invite Christian counselors to do talks, assemble book clubs and read books on mental health, and organize support groups around some of these issues of mental wellness.
When a person is feeling powerless to do anything about their financial condition, what’s the first step to gaining a healthy perspective?
I teach all of my clients a skill I call “two sides of a coin.” I tell them that just as a coin has two sides, so do our situations. And we get to choose which side we look at, heads or tails. I challenge them to get ahead by looking at “heads” or stay in a “tailspin” by looking at the negatives. I teach that some things are blessings in disguise. If they’ve lost a job, I challenge them to explore if, in some unanticipated way, their prayers were answered. Many times they realize the answer actually is yes, and it’s an opportunity for them to pursue something that they’d always wanted to do but had been afraid or unable to try. Many start businesses, and others find better jobs. I challenge them to develop a different perspective.
I often use the story about the sick girl whom Jesus was on His way to heal, but the people told Jesus that the girl was already dead. However, Jesus told them she was only sleeping. Jesus and the people were talking about the same girl, but their perceptions were dramatically different.
As a Christian counselor, you encourage people to draw on their faith to make it through these times, but what do you say to the believer who just can’t see his or her way through the darkness? How do you talk to them about having hope without sounding trite?
I use the story of Job, particularly when the devil asks God for permission to mess with Job and how the Lord limits him. I tell folks that even though their situations are tough, their hardship has been limited. The enemy is only able to go so far. They usually find hope in this–that even after the devil’s best shot, they are still living and breathing, with the ability to re-envision their futures and trust God for a new start.
What are some other general tips that you would recommend to help people endure these uncertain times?
Certainly prayer and studying the Bible for peace and direction; exercises for proper breathing, so that their negative emotions do not manifest physically as headaches or other illnesses; and journaling is helpful–getting your worries out of your head and onto paper. I also strongly encourage reading books that can expand your thinking about God and life. There’s an old saying, “If you want to keep something away from a black man, put it in a book.” But I reject that. I challenge all of my clients to expand their minds through reading. I believe the only difference between those who have and those who have not is not skin color, but knowledge.
You’re a self-employed professional. How has the economic downturn affected you personally?
Because I have bills like everyone else, I am not exempt from financial stress. I do practice what I preach daily. However, I must confess, my business has gone up as the economy has gone down. Perhaps it is because more folks seek counseling when things are tough, but I believe it is also because my mentality is different. I work to stay positive in all situations. For instance, I’m stepping out on faith and growing my business from an individual practice to a group agency. I work hard not to be moved by circumstances. I study Jeremiah 29:4-11, where the Israelites were in captivity and God told them to build houses, have kids, get married. He told them that He brought them into captivity to increase, not decrease. That blesses me. God has not allowed the economy to get bad for us to decrease as people. We just need to work and pray to see things from His perspective.