Dr. Keith: Home Foreclosures Become Large Public Health Concern

Carlene Balderrama, a Massachusetts mother, shot herself to death on July 22 after alerting her mortgage company that she would be dead by the time they foreclosed on her home. Her story isn’t the only one that speaks of the dire consequences of America’s mortgage crisis.

I know from my own psychiatry practice and from what my colleagues tell me about theirs, that economic pressures, particularly those surrounding the mortgage crisis, are causing large numbers of Americans to suffer from depression and consider life-alerting decisions, including divorce.

Foreclosures can “hit home” especially hard. Our homes are more than financial assets. They have deep emotional meaning. For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in houses owned by our parents, they were the backdrop for our childhood memories — the places we played, argued, hung our artwork and marked the door jamb with pencil lines as we grew taller.

For better or worse, the houses of our childhoods represented to many of us a good measure of the success our parents had attained, an outward expression of how hard work paid off in comfort and safety and the respect of the community. The lawn got cut. The paint was freshened up. Maybe a pool was added in the back. When things went well, our houses grew with us.

With the foreclosure rate in America skyrocketing, our economic conditions translate into a true public health concern. Losing one’s home can feel like losing one’s self. Those being foreclosed upon can feel like they have let down their families, that they have been “exposed” as failures in the eyes of the community and that the road back to stability is too full of twists and turns to even begin to think about navigating it.

This perfect storm of lowered self-esteem and perceived loss of face is indeed the growing place for divorce, panic disorder, major depression and stress-related medical conditions like hypertension. That’s why a national program that would offer a kind of “outplacement” psychological counseling to those who are losing or who have lost their homes is needed. Our community hospitals, academic medical centers, family physicians and community mental health centers should be prepared in a special way for the burden that home foreclosure represents.

During my 16 years practicing psychiatry, I’ve worked with many people facing financial reversals, including home foreclosure. Some were anxious or felt hopeless. Some had developed symptoms of major depression. Here’s some of what I learned (I hope it can be of help to those who have lost their homes or are at risk of losing them):

— Trying to white knuckle your feelings and fears can leave you feeling alone with them. Voicing them puts them in context — as things happening in your life, not life itself. Talk more about your feelings and fears, not less.

— Every difficult chapter of one’s life story offers the chance to rise above it by showing grit or grace in the face of uncertainty. Our loved ones and the community measure us by assessing our characters, not by calculating our finances. The way you react in adversity is what defines you, not adversity itself.

— Our financial circumstances are never entirely under our control. The economic realities of the day truly impact what is possible for many of us. Millions of Americans are losing their homes. If you would not judge them as weak or unwise, try not to judge yourself.

— Seek more information about the economy, not less. You’ve learned the impact that financial markets can have, in personal terms. Become an even better student of them.

— When people look back at their lives, almost all can identify periods of great turmoil, whether it be personally, professionally or financially. If this is one of yours, you are in pain now, but the overall arc of your life story can still be in the direction of success and happiness. Abraham Lincoln, for example, suffered severe financial reversals and several political losses before his great successes.

— No patient has ever described the real assets provided by his or her parents by the kind of house or apartment the family lived in. To a person, the accounting has always been emotional: Did he or she feel well-loved? Was he or she listened to? Were his or her dreams encouraged? If you want to put something that lasts “in the bank” for your kids, tell them that whether you live in a big house, a little house or an apartment (or even in temporary housing) you will always be a family and kiss them goodnight wherever they go to sleep.

— There is great power in shifting from seeing oneself as a victim to seeing oneself as a survivor. Thinking like a survivor helps you marshal the resources needed to sure up your family now and your finances over time.

— Conditions like major depression and panic disorder and symptoms like insomnia are among the most treatable in psychiatry. If you are suffering in these ways, tell your family doctor or a mental health care provider. Psychotherapy and medication (when indicated) work in more than 90 percent of cases.

— It’s important to take stock of your “assets.” Are you healthy? Are your children healthy? Are they attending school without serious difficulty? Again, while home ownership is a wonderful part of life, it pales in comparison to other gifts of stability your family may be enjoying right now.

— You can train your vision to look past today’s crisis to a better future. Start planning how you are going to own a home again — today. This can mean something as simple as opening a new savings account with a tiny deposit. The concrete intention to begin rebuilding your financial position can help you feel like you have psychological momentum on your side, or will again soon.

Finally, if you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, get help right away. You might have to call 911 to have that person evaluated by a mental health professional in a community crisis center or emergency room. It’s better to overreact than to underreact.

I hope the words I’ve written will be helpful. I hope you’ll take them to heart yourself, if you’re feeling anxious or low about meeting your financial obligations. I hope you’ll also share them with others you believe are suffering at this time.

Ultimately, the news is all about people. And, ultimately, it turns out to be about help and hope and seeing that a better future is always possible in America.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow’s Web site at livingthetruth.com.

Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.