Economy spurs rise in suicide line calls

December 24, 2008|DAVID LAZARUS

Layoffs, foreclosures, cutbacks -- there are plenty of grim economic stats out there this holiday season. Here's perhaps the grimmest one of all: Calls to Los Angeles' busiest suicide hotline have soared as much as 60% over the last year.

Mental health experts say the sour economy has turned what usually manifests as seasonal blues into a full-blown crisis.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, and this is the worst I've seen it," said Kita Curry, president of the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center, which along with nine clinics in the Southland operates the region's most frequently called suicide hotline -- (877) 7-CRISIS.

Last year, she said, the hotline got an average of 1,500 calls per month. Now the total routinely tops 2,000 and sometimes runs as high as 2,400.

Likewise, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline says it's getting 35% more calls -- roughly 50,000 a month this year compared with about 37,000 last year. The national hotline can be reached at (800) 273-TALK.

"What's even more noticeable than the increase in call volume is that the intensity of the calls has gone up," said Sandri Kramer, who began as a hotline volunteer at the Hirsch center about 13 years ago and now is the program director.

"Fear is the No. 1 emotion we're hearing. People are feeling hopeless and helpless because of the economic crisis, and many feel that things aren't going to get better."

Kramer cited the case of a woman who lost her home and now lives in her car. Another caller, she said, is secretly living in a locker at a storage facility.

"A year ago, many of the calls we would get were from people with mental illnesses," Kramer said. "Now many of the calls are from people who have lost their home, or their job, or who still have a job but can't meet the cost of living."

One other big difference: Kramer said callers these days appeared to be further along in pondering their own demise, rather than just grappling with sadness or confusion.

Extreme cases have emerged in recent weeks. On Tuesday, a money manager who had invested funds with accused Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernard Madoff was found dead in his Manhattan office. Police said Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, 65, apparently committed suicide.

Madoff is charged with bilking clients and business partners out of as much as $50 billion. De la Villehuchet may have lost as much as $1.4 billion of investors' cash.

In October, a 45-year-old Porter Ranch resident, Karthik Rajaram, killed his wife, mother-in-law and three sons before taking his own life. In a letter to police, he blamed economic hardship.

Shortly afterward, a Pasadena woman, Wanda Dunn, 53, set her house on fire and then apparently shot herself in the head. She was due to be evicted that day after experiencing financial setbacks.

"The most important thing is to ask for help," said Ken Kondo, a spokesman for the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. "Not everyone can do that."

Like the Hirsch center, he said, the county's crisis hotline -- (800) 854-7771 -- is seeing a surge in calls from "everyday people" dealing with the fallout of an economy on the ropes.

Almost every counseling service in the region is experiencing an increase in clients. The parking lot was full this week when I visited the Southern California Counseling Center in West L.A.

Gail Wilburn, executive director of the center, said a growing number of people -- including working-class folk and out-of-work actors -- have been stopping by for help in coping with the sour economy. At peak hours, she said, every room and office in the two-story building is used for counseling sessions.

On Jan. 5, the center will launch a support group for people dealing with issues related to the recession. The group is being formed in conjunction with Jewish Vocational Service, a nonprofit organization that assists people with work problems.

"It says something that we've never done something like this before -- ever," Wilburn said. "We're seeing a lot more people coming here for discussions about the economy, rather than 'I love my boyfriend, but he doesn't love me.' "

Robert Mendelsohn, the center's clinical director, agreed that the economy has come to overshadow virtually all conversations with clients.

He cited the case of an unmarried couple that first came for help about a year ago. At the time, they had relationship issues common to many couples, and Mendelsohn said the pair gradually showed improvement.

"Now they're back," he said. "She's lost her job and he's drinking more. They don't know what to do."

Mental health professionals say there are a number of warning signs for depression to watch for in yourself or loved ones:

* Irritability or a tendency to engage in arguments.

* Withdrawal from ordinary activities or hobbies.

* Forgetfulness, sleeplessness or trouble concentrating.

* Mood changes, especially unusual feelings of sadness.

* Increased use of alcohol or drugs.

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