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The Horrific Toll of Depression: Suicides Linked to Recession, As Budget Cuts Force Out Mental Health Professionals

Depression, PTSD -- even suicide -- mount nationwide while budgets for treatment and care are shrinking.

In late 2009, as the unemployment rate in San Joaquin County, California, reached 18 percent and one in twelve homes were being foreclosed, two high school students in the town of Ripon, population 15,000, committed suicide within two months of each other. Over the next eighteen months, sixteen more teenagers around the county took their own lives, a not-uncommon occurrence that public health researchers refer to as “suicide contagion.”

Years of declining budgets had cut the number of counselors, nurses and psychologists in county schools, impairing the ability of individual districts to handle the needs of grieving students, parents and communities on their own. So school officials in cities like Ripon, Stockton, Lodi and Linden turned to each other for help.

The districts made use of a mutual aid pact they’d set up, like those employed by firefighters and police from the same region. On the morning after each death, school nurses and counselors trained in suicide response, along with a team of therapists from Valley Community Counseling, a local mental health agency, descended on the school the student had attended. They spent days, sometimes weeks, meeting with pupils and parents, focusing on kids who knew the victims or seemed at particular risk.

The spirit of cooperation helped the team fashion an effective crisis response and ease the pain of some survivors, said David Love, executive director of Valley Community Counseling. But, by definition, it came too late, he said. “We’re doing everything we can to partner and develop these mutual aid plans,’’ Love said. “But we’re still band-aiding. When you’re doing crisis work, you’re at the back end. The tragedy is that we don’t have the resources early in the process.”

As the U.S. economy struggles to pull out of the worst funk since the 1930s, public services for the country’s most vulnerable populations—children, the elderly, the mentally ill—are being cut or disappearing at a time when the need for them is greater than ever. Faced with gaping deficits, states have slashed $1.6 billion from mental health programs over the past four years, according to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  The pain is being felt everywhere.

• Illinois has slashed $187 million from its mental health budget and plans to close three of nine psychiatric hospitals. A budget passed in November by the Chicago City Council will close half the city’s 12 mental health clinics.

• In Detroit, the county mental health program has lost $30 million in state funding over the past three years, forcing numerous cuts to the agencies it supports. Detroit Central City Community Mental Health, which provides outpatient treatment and reentry programs for people leaving jails and psychiatric hospitals, lost a quarter of its funding and cut its staff by a third. Charlotte House, a transitional housing program for people with psychiatric disorders discharged from the county hospital, closed its doors.

• California has cut mental health funding by $765 million, or 21 percent, since 2009. In Oakland, the number of children waiting to see a counselor at West Coast Children’s Center, a community mental health clinic, has swollen to 50.  “It’s not a good feeling that there are kids on a waiting list and you can’t hire more clinicians,” said Stacey Katz, the center’s director. “It stresses everybody out. How do we triage? How do we decide who needs services the most without violating our mission that kids should have mental health services when they need it?”

Meanwhile, homelessness, domestic violence, and child abuse are rising. Nationally, nearly 1 million schoolchildren were homeless in the 2009-2010 school year, a 38 percent increase in four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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