Lingering recession,mounting layoffs take a physical toll STRESS

October 22, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

Most of us are struggling to get by in today's tight economy. Every day this week, look for tips to help you make do with less. And in future weeks, we'll offer readers' ideas on how to cut costs.

If you've got a money-saving tip to pass along, use a touch-tone phone to call SUNDIAL at 783-1800 (or 268-7736 from Anne Arundel County). Once the system answers your call, enter code 4400. Or write Making Do With Less, Features Department, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Every now and then the panic hits, and Millicent Beal thinks to herself, "Omigod, will I ever work again?" or "Omigod, am I going to lose my house?"

About a week and a half ago, her job just disappeared -- sending the Mount Washington-based manager of corporate real estate services at USF&G and the people she supervised into financial and personal limbo.

Ms. Beal knows the economic crunch is to blame. She knows that it's not her fault, that she'll find another job, that there's no reason to panic. But her mother was hospitalized at the same time that her job was vaporized, and the stress, piled upon stress, has kept her up at night.

She is not alone.

Doctors and psychologists have long understood that recessions aren't just about money. As the economy continues its downward spiral and people lose their jobs, or worry that they're going to lose their jobs, or find themselves doing a job and a half -- or even two jobs to pick up the slack left by someone else who lost or left a job -- one thing is spiraling upward:


Tension and anxiety combined with biological and environmental factors can cause a range of physical and emotional problems, from headaches and backaches, stomach upsets and ulcers to insomnia and mental illnesses. When stress is up, the immune system is down, say doctors, so people are more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections.

And an economic crunch adds the extra whammy: Studies show that rises in unemployment are accompanied by rises in suicide, homicide, heart disease, alcoholism, family violence and depression.

Luckily, the really serious problems don't strike overnight, says Dr. David Mallott, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center. As job or financial situations change, people adjust; figure out ways to cope. But as the financial picture worsens, as job responsibilities mount, so do stress levels -- until finally, people can adjust no more.

"We're seeing more people with anxiety," he says. "I don't know bTC that we've seen large increases in overt depressive disorder, but I think it's the next step. I think the increases we will see in physical illnesses haven't started yet: It takes a while to get an ulcer or have a myocardial infarction [heart attack]. But the longer the recession rolls on, the more pessimistic people become, and the greater the risk is."

And here comes Catch-22: Short of cash or afraid they soon will be, people are often unwilling or unable to pay for care that might nip the little ailments in the bud. Recessions are historically associated with a drop-off in visits to doctors and dentists.

"If you are uninsured, you have 40 percent fewer doctor visits; 15 percent fewer hospital admissions, and a significantly lower health status on admission," declares Dr. Gerard Anderson, director of the center for hospital finance and management at Johns Hopkins University.

So you're sicker when you get to the hospital -- and less likely to get better, he says.

Seeking help for mental health reasons may go by the boards, as well. "People are skittish," reports psychologist Bill Petok, who has offices in Baltimore and Severna Park. "Even when they have good health insurance, they refrain from entering treatment because their cash flow is so bad, or they're afraid they won't be able to make the co-payment. They say, 'Part of my stress is financially related; it would be foolish to go into therapy if it's going to cause me more stress.' "

But where services are free, business is booming. The EAPs -- employee assistance programs that provide counseling and +V referral services to people who are still working -- are generally seeing an increase in the number of people who recognize that something is wrong, though they don't always know why.

"People are feeling desperation in the face of fear of loss of their job,"reports Dr. Frank McIntyre, director of the EAP for city government employees. "They say they're constantly anxious, that they have spastic colons, backaches, skin rashes, fatigue, nausea on the job. But they might not know it's because of the threat of loss of the job until a counselor helps them work it through."

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