May is National Mental Health Month and the professionals in that field are trying to get the word out. This year, because of the downturn in the economy and so many lost jobs -- especially in Bedford County -- it has become even more important to recognize the signs of mental distress and treat them -- and prevent them.
Ken Stewart, the director for Centerstone in this region, knows the problems that can arise with unemployment all too well. When he gives advice to families stressed out by financial difficulties, he can draw on his own experience.
"My wife was laid off several times," he said.
There are several things to keep in mind, said Stewart, when dealing with the loss of the job and how to deal with your family.
"It is important that the parents know not to beat themselves up (mentally) for it," he said. "When you're laid off, it becomes personal. You ask yourself 'What did I do wrong?'"
"With kids," he continued, "especially the younger ones, avoid extremes. Don't hide the situation -- they will notice. And you don't want to overwhelm them with all of the adult concerns."
Stewart said dark humor was also a bad approach, again, especially with the younger ones who tend to deal in concrete issues better than sarcasm or exaggeration.
"When you joke and say, 'We're going to end up in the poorhouse,' a younger child will take that seriously," he said.
Stewart said parents should talk about the situation with children without going into grim details.
"Encourage them to talk about their fears -- that's where you'll find the biggest disconnect," he said.
He gave an example of when his own son was a young boy. Stewart had referred to a massive home being built nearby as "that monster house" because if its size. When it was completed, he suggested the family go over and take a look at it. The boy got hysterical.
"He didn't want to go," said Stewart. "He said a monster lived there."
That kind of misunderstanding is what can be avoided by letting the children talk, but Stewart again emphasized the need to not overburden children with too many details or problems. Instead, he said, let them in on "The Plan."
"Don't turn to them as if they are your best friends and unload on them," he said. "But let them know what the plan is, whether it's one of you going back to school, or looking for a new job. Let them know about unemployment so they know that some money will be coming in."
Stewart said the experience can be a learning one. When his own son was laid off recently, he told his father he was going to deal with it like his mom had. Instead of moping or panicking, she would take some time off and work at a Girl Scout camp. Then, when she was ready, she would begin to look for work. Stewart said his son decided it was time to go on a mission trip.
"They learn from what you do and how you handle it," he said. "We don't want it to happen to them, but if it does, and you handled it, they will be able to."
Another way to help children deal with a parent's unemployment and the family's changed economic status is to keep some things the same. Vacations, for instance, don't have to be done away with -- just altered to fit a new budget.
"A lot of people think in black and white," he said. "They think, 'If we can't take that expensive vacation now, we aren't going on vacation.'"
But there are plenty of inexpensive, if not free, opportunities for family time within easy driving distance. If the kids can't go to Disneyworld, he said, they can go some local festival or historic site in their own neighborhood, sites they would not have visited otherwise.
"I've lived in Nashville a long time," said Stewart. "I've never been to the Opry. Let the kids get involved with the planning."
He also suggested having a yard sale -- and letting the children get involved with that, too.
"It's a good way to get rid of a lot of stuff," he said. "And make money. Let the kids do the work. They can mark their own items with colored stickers and get to keep the money themselves."
He said parents would be surprised at how many of those items children deem "priceless" find their ways to the sale table when kids know they can keep the money brought in.
As important as it is for suddenly unemployed parents to be able to recognize the fears and respond to the needs of their families, it's just as important for the families to do the same for the parents.
"Be real in tune with how they are dealing with it," Stewart said. "They do get depressed."
Losing a job is like losing a loved one, he added, and the process of denial, anger, bargaining and grief go along with it. Not only is the displaced worker dealing with the loss of income, he or she is dealing with the loss of identity and purpose.
"It's hard to realize and hard on their ego. One of the things I hear most often is 'My family would be better off without me.' People do some desperate things. Not everyone stays depressed for a long time, but everyone gets depressed. It's a risky time."
Stewart said family members should keep an eye out for signs of serious depression. Those include changes in sleeping patterns, changes in appetite, with a marked weight loss or gain, social isolation, and avoiding doing things that once gave the person pleasure.
"When that becomes a pattern," he said. "It's time for help."
- Ideation (thinking, talking or wishing about suicide)
- Substance use or abuse (increased use or change in substance)
- Puposelessness (no sense of purpose or belonging)
- Trapped feeling (feeling like there is no way out)
- Hopelessness (there is nothing to live for, no hope or optimism)
- Withdrawal (from family, friends, work, school, activities, hobbies)
- Anxiety (restlessness, irritability, agitation)
- Recklessness (high risk-taking behavior)
- Mood disturbance (dramatic changes in mood)
- Talking about suicide.
- Looking for ways to die (internet searches for how to commit suicide, looking for guns, pills, etc.)
- Statements about hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness.
- Preoccupation with death.
- Suddenly happier, calmer.
- Loss of interest in things one cares about.
- Visiting or calling people one cares about.
- Making arrangements; setting one's affairs in order.
- Giving things away, such as prized possessions.
A suicidal person urgently needs to see a doctor or mental health professional. In an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK
Source -- Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, http://www.save.org