In 2001, while Angela Sasseville was expecting her first child, her husband, Bill, was laid off.
With his background in mechanical engineering, he was able to find a new job again before daughter Oriel was born. But 15 days after Oriel's birth, Angela, who had been working as a recruiter, was treated to her own layoff while on maternity leave.
The next day was Sept. 11, 2001.
"We all know what happened to the economy, and the recruiting field that I was in was hit very hard," she says. "Companies don't need recruiters when there's high unemployment."
That's when things started to get hard.
Research has suggested that financial strain and debt are strong risk factors for mental-health problems — and that we don't pay enough attention to that connection. One University of Leicester study last year found that "adults in debt were three times more likely than those not in debt to have (common mental disorders)."
Aurora-based licensed professional counselor Dominique Condevaux sees the pattern in her work.
"Especially in this time in our economy, in our world, money is a big factor," she says.
Sasseville, now also a licensed professional counselor and author, points to two types of problematic responses to financial strain: catastrophic thoughts and checking out.
The catastrophic thinker jumps from being concerned about losing a job to envisioning immediate and irreversible homelessness.
The checked-out thinker might buy a $3,000 bike despite having to put it on credit and having no realistic hope of paying it off.
"They're both very emotional processes," she says. "We benefit from balancing that with some real hardcore logic."
It can seem really difficult to get help. For one thing, it's complicated.
"There is no go-to, all-encompassing database where a potential therapy client can research who's out there," says Sasseville. She cites PsychologyToday.com's directory as an increasingly comprehensive option.
But cost is a concern, too. According to a national survey by theSubstance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 50.1 percent of people with unmet mental health needs in 2011 cited "could not afford cost" as the reason for not receiving mental health services.
"The system isn't perfect and access is a huge issue," says Chris Habgood, director of policy and planning for the Office of Behavioral Health at the Colorado Department of Human Services. Human Services funds 17 Community Mental Health Centers statewide. Part of what they do is offer help to people who aren't covered for mental-health care and qualify with a certain level of income.
Outside of these centers, Habgood notes, there are private organizations and individuals that offer help with sliding-scale rates. Metro Crisis Services has an online directory of mental health resources at metrocrisisservices.org/find-services that returns more than 60 results on a search for free and sliding scale mental health services in Colorado.
"Our financial challenges occur on top of everything else that we're dealing with in life," says Sasseville. Over the next four years, she lost her younger brother to cancer quickly, and Bill was laid off again, piling on the stress and the strain.
"We sold some stock. We went through all of our savings," she says. "We went from being in the black and slowly started to sink into debt."
Eventually, it was five-figure debt.
"Bill and I were both aware that our family was in financial trouble — and we were both heartbroken and traumatized, in the truest sense of the word. Good financial sense wasn't even on the list of the top three things that we were addressing."
They went into a pattern of avoidance and credit-card abuse, but the strain wasn't just financial. The debt took its toll on their marriage.
"It was a real hot button and a real source of conflict between the two of us."
For Anna Newell Jones, financial trouble was relatively quarantined to herself — her husband wouldn't combine finances with her because he knew she didn't handle her money well — but that didn't make it much better.
Jones racked up debt while studying photography at the Art Institute of Colorado, but after she graduated, things got worse. She spent nine years feeling like a little more debt here and there wasn't much on top of her college loans.
"I had gotten into the habit of overspending by $200-$300 every single month," she says. "There was just a lot of guilt and hopelessness with how I was spending." In time, she accrued nearly $24,000 in debt.
"I didn't really know who to talk to about it," Jones says. "My whole life was, 'Well, I get some pleasure from spending money and this is how my friends are doing it.... They've got nice furniture, and I want a couch, too.'"
She says she was depressed by not being able to control her spending, despite thinking of herself as a pretty smart young woman.
"People buy for a distraction," says Condevaux. Another reason? "Self-esteem issues. You go into a store to make yourself look better."
She points out that shopping often involves going to really welcoming places — salespeople are happy to see you, they're smiling, they treat you nicely.
"People joke about retail therapy," she says, "but what's happening is they're going to a happy place."
"One of the things that we had to do," says Sasseville, "is to shift out of a place where you feel entirely victimized by your circumstances."
The Sassevilles took action. For example, they stopped using credit cards — entirely. To this day, they don't have a single credit card. Once they threw away what had been a dangerous crutch for them, they had to find better solutions. Angela found ways to grow her business and hold the line on her hourly rate.
Her experiences led her to write a book, "Families Under Financial Stress."
"One of the reasons that I wrote the book is because financial stress is not normally the top issue that will bring somebody into the therapy office," she says. "It's more about, how does that person cope with the change?"
For Jones, too, the change had to come from within. "There wasn't anything like, 'Aw, hey lady, you look like you're in a lot of debt,' " she jokes.
After unsuccessful bouts with simple budgeting, she decided to go nuclear. She started what she calls a "spending fast." And here's a spoiler: It worked well enough that she's now trademarked the term and attracted a following to a blog about the process, andthenwesaved.com.
"I spent on only needs," she says. And she means it: rent, utilities, groceries, cutting those costs as much as she could, too. She supplemented her $33,000 courthouse-clerk salary with redoubled efforts in her wedding-photography business. In the first month of her project, she paid off more than $500.
It was having an effect, but it wasn't easy. Her husband, who wasn't in such dire financial straits, wasn't participating — but he was affected by it. He'd want to go see a movie, and Jones would decline.
"I made the spending fast 'that guy.' 'If it wasn't for this spending fast, I would be having so much fun with you.' "
Eventually, she gave herself a $35 monthly allowance for such things.
Jones' approach thrived on her positivity and on granting herself control over her life. She never made a budget for herself. She just made lists of what she was allowed to buy, and whittled those costs down as low as she could. Within 15 months, she'd paid off all of her debt.
The spending fast affected her relationships with friends, too, in a surprising way: They started opening up to her about their own financial situations.
"Everybody thinks that everybody else is doing better than they are financially," Jones says. But that brand of shame, at least, can go away with a little conversation.
"It was really liberating to be open about it and to not be pretending that everything was fine when it wasn't," she says. Her friends seemed to agree. "They were seeing that I wasn't going to judge them and I had already been through it."
Dave Burdick: 303-954-1957, firstname.lastname@example.org, @daveburdick
When financial problems are affecting you, watch out for these signs that you — or loved ones — may need help:
• Persistent sadness or crying
• Excessive anxiety
• Lack of sleep or constant fatigue
• Excessive irritability or anger
• Increased drinking
• Illicit drug use, including misuse of medications
• Difficulty paying attention or staying focused
• Not caring about things that are usually important to you
• Not being able to function as well at work, school or home
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, samhsa.gov/economy
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