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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

Suicide calls -- to assessor's office

October 17, 2008|Dana Parsons

This may or may not be a sign of things to come: Two calls from two different people in recent days came in to the Orange County assessor's office. Within the hour, mental health professionals were at the people's homes, trying to determine if the suicide threats they'd made on the phone might be acted on.

It's fair to say that suicide prevention efforts don't normally originate from the county assessor's office. In fact, says a county mental health manager, those two were the first ever.

But it makes you wonder. Given the state of the economy and the prospects that it could get worse, I fear they won't be the last.

Annette Mugrditchian won't sign off on my scenario but she doesn't minimize the potential for the economy to ruin someone's day -- if not his or her life.

She's a manager for the county's adult mental health services and says the signs aren't here yet that the troubling economic news will produce a surge of people needing mental health help.

What makes it hard to predict, she notes, is that people react to dire news in all kinds of ways. Nor is it likely that the county would be the obvious choice for someone needing therapy.

I will hold to my theory, however, if only because I sense I'm slowly going nuts myself. Unplanned early morning wake-ups with my 401(k) on the brain can't be good for one's health.

Both calls to the assessor's office came from middle-aged people worried about losing their homes, Mugrditchian says. "They were very vocal that if that happened, they were going to commit suicide. They were feeling very depressed."

To their credit, the assessor folks quickly contacted the mental health folks, who phoned the unhappy residents and then made house calls. In both cases, clinicians determined that the people probably weren't suicidal, but they did give them some coping tips.

In neither case, Mugrditchian says, did the people have previous mental health issues. That scares me a bit.

It shows how pernicious a collapsing economy can be. Bad news can come in the form of an older person losing the bulk of a retirement account that's moored in the stock market, or a younger family losing a job that might in turn cost them a house and health insurance.

Even people with perfect mental health report cards can nose-dive after jolts like that, Mugrditchian says.

But not everyone will. "Certainly anyone who loses a home is going to be depressed and anxious," she says, "but one person will pick up and move in with family members, while another wouldn't know how to take the steps to make that happen."

That's a pathway to anxiety. And, in the worst cases, depression -- where "even though people know what to do, they can't get it together to take those steps," she says.

I ask Mugrditchian how someone -- let's call him "Me" -- knows when he's not coping properly.

"We all get afraid," she says. "It's how long you're afraid, the prolonging of the anxiety. If you stay in that state for very long, you can become immobilized."

I've casually suggested to friends (and myself) that they avoid repeated exposure to the bad news. Turns out I was on to something.

"It's like after 9/11," Mugrditchian says. "We encouraged people not to keep watching the planes hit the buildings."

It's the same thing with the economy: Rather than torturing yourself watching the stock market ticker or the stream of bad news running across your TV screen all day, she suggests, catch up at workday's end or read the newspaper.

And then find something that works off stress -- talking to friends, taking walks, doing yoga or whatever.

There's no avoiding that big-ticket economic problems loom. Losing a home or health insurance because you've lost a job is not just campaign rhetoric. It can have damaging consequences.

What I learned from Mugrditchian is that, even if we're powerless to stop the bad news, we have some power to fight back.

And something else: If you're feeling suicidal, don't call the assessor.

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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