Mental health need rises as economy lags

Graphic: Mental health hot line calls

As the Great Recession grinds on and unemployment rates hover near double digits, calls to hospitals, clinics and hot lines for mental health problems have soared, as has the number of people admitted to psychiatric wards.

Inpatient hospitalizations are up by 20 percent from last year at Hackensack University Medical Center. At St. Clare's Hospital in Denville, steady 2010 rates follow a 25 percent jump in 2009. St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson treated nearly 50 percent more outpatients in 2009 than in 2007. And, in some counties, suicides are up.

The same trend is echoed nationally, and a chorus of experts pins the blame on the economy.

"More people are calling about losing their job," said David Owens, executive director of the Westfield-based Contact We Care hot line. "If they haven't lost it, they're afraid they will, and if they lose their job, they'll lose their house, and if they lose their house, their family will leave. This chain of events, even before it happens, has people paralyzed with fear."

Demand high, funds low

Health providers are struggling to meet spiking demand with stagnant funding. Many hospitals have wait lists of up to three months for outpatient and voluntary inpatient services, and patients in crisis are flooding emergency rooms.

Trenton funds two short-term programs to keep people out of the ER — one at St. Clare's and one in Atlantic County — but money is an obstacle to more.

In the meantime, both tragedies and success stories abound.

In one well-publicized incident in February, 33-year-old Sean Cassidy of Wayne killed himself even after being placed in a supervised apartment by the Trenton-based SERV Behavioral Health System.

But for hundreds of others, treatment saved their lives.

Ben, of Ridgefield Park, who asked that his last name be withheld, admitted himself to Bergen Regional Medical Center last September for depression related to Oxycontin and cocaine addiction. He was suicidal then but now is planning to attend Bergen Community College.

For Bayonne resident John, three failed back surgeries sent him into a depression. "I didn't want to get out of bed — I just wanted to lay there and die," he said.

The Community Advocates program, which is run by the Mental Health Association of New Jersey, treated him and helped him file for Social Security disability pay and other services. Now he's better and volunteering for the program.

Of eight hospitals and six other programs in the region, all but one reported greater demand for mental health treatment since 2007.

Suicide rates are less clear-cut. The state medical examiner's statistics show an increase since 2007 in Passaic, Hudson and Essex counties but a decrease in Bergen and Morris. Numbers have varied greatly from year to year since 2000.

This disparity may relate to economic distress, as counties with higher unemployment had more suicides. Paula Clayton, medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and a statement from the American Association of Suicidology both noted that unemployment historically correlates with higher suicide rates.

And while suicides are down among the typically at-risk teens and elderly, they're up for those ages 46 to 64, the hardest hit by long-term unemployment.

"A good proportion of our patients are really poor, and the poor are severely impacted," said Phyllis Hancock, outpatient coordinator for behavioral health services at St. Mary's Hospital in Passaic. She added that she's seen people with preexisting mental illnesses recover with medication but relapse because they're unable to afford it.

Not just the economy

The economy is not the only factor in play, but it is connected to others.

For example, alcohol and drug abuse increase with unemployment, as does domestic violence, said Deborah Hartel, administrative director for behavioral health services at St. Joseph's.

It affects not only unemployed individuals, but their families as well: Marriages are strained and children begin to pick up on the tension, said Michael Tozzoli, CEO of West Bergen Mental Healthcare in Ridgewood.

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