SEATTLE – People worried about the economy are more likely to seek help paying their bills or feeding their families than turning to suicide or violence as one man did in Los Angeles this week, mental health experts in Washington state said Tuesday.
“I don’t think the average response to the downturn in the economy is more people thinking of suicide because they can’t pay their bills,” said Kathleen Southwick, executive director of the Crisis Clinic in Seattle.
Southwick said her nonprofit agency’s 24-hour crisis line has not seen an increase in calls these past few weeks, but the “211” non-emergency line has seen about a 50 percent increase in the number of people calling to find out where they can get help paying the rent and keeping the lights on.
“If you can’t pay your rent, you’re in emotional distress, but what you’re looking for is help paying your rent,” Southwick said.
The 211 help line is available everywhere in Washington and in about 80 percent of the country. People can get connected to resources in their own community – financial assistance, food, shelter and emotional support – when they dial the three digits.
The last time the help line saw such a sharp increase in calls was a few years ago “when the tech bubble burst,” Southwick said.
The head of Washington’s mental health services said his agency has not seen any reports of more violence or suicides related to mental distress caused by the economic downturn.
When people experienced the dot-com bust a few years ago, they turned to food banks more often than suicide hot lines, said David Weston, chief of mental health services with the mental health division of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.
“Any kind of individual crisis can stretch people’s abilities to cope,” Weston added, but said he hasn’t seen any indication that the economic situation will lead to a peak in mental health crises like last year’s floods in Western Washington.
“Most circumstances where there’s a financial crisis, most people need help from resources other than mental health,” Weston said.
Natural disasters are different, however, and mental health workers are often called on for short-term trauma counseling after a flood, hurricane or earthquake.
Spokesmen for Seattle police and the King County sheriff’s office both said they haven’t seen an increase in suicide or violent crime since the nation’s economic troubles began.