"You don't have to go to Gaza to treat posttraumatic stress disorder," my friend said. "Just come to New York."
It's not that the mental and emotional state of the US population is indistinguishable from that of Gaza's Palestinians -- many of whom have lived with eight years of war and civil strife -- thousands of lives lost and homes destroyed, and unemployment reaching 40-50 -- some say 70-80-percent. Indeed, even those of us hit hardest three weeks into the worst of this unraveling financial crisis, are still technically experiencing only an "acute stress disorder." But there are signs that each day, this growing financial crisis is traumatizing us more and more. Add to that our costly, life-claiming Middle East war, and we -- like the Palenstinians in Gaza -- may also be on our way to significant levels of population-wide traumatic stress.
Posttraumatic stress disorder, which by definition lasts longer than several weeks, is characterized by three sets of symptoms: "Hyperarousal," an agitated state in which the heart may race, concentration and sleep are disturbed, startle responses are exaggerated and anger easily triggered; "Re-experiencing" the original trauma -- in nightmares, intense and disturbing memories, and flashbacks; and "Avoidance" of trauma-related thoughts and feelings, coupled often with a sense of detachment and estrangement, emotional numbness and an apprehension about a bleak future.
All these are in abundant supply in those closest to the crisis -- the ones who have lost jobs and pensions, older people who see their retirement savings melting away, and people of all ages who cannot keep up payment on their homes. Many who are, or were, working on Wall Street are sleeping fitfully, jiggling their knees uncontrollably in meetings, drinking and eating too much, losing their appetites, and popping antacids and tranquilizers. One broker friend is awake far into the night, worrying about her elderly clients' inability to live on their diminished incomes and whether or not she will be able to pay her own child's tuition. Others, like one 30-year Lehman Brothers veteran who is married to a colleague, have receded into states of frozen denial; acting as if somehow everything were still as it was. He dresses as meticulously as he always did and sits for hours at a computer which no longer registers his trades.
And the symptoms are also present with more or less intensity in many of the rest of us who feel the financial foundations crumbling under our feet. I have been hearing from retirees who are waking up in the middle of the night, panicked, to pore over diminished budgets, then fall asleep worrying that their fixed incomes will no longer permit them to live in the houses they saved a lifetime to buy. A colleague out West tells me her psychiatric inpatient service is overflowing with people whose loss of homes and jobs has undermined their precarious emotional, as well as economic, security. Meanwhile, anxious and depressed people, unable to afford gas for the long trip to the outpatient clinic, call in for more prescriptions for tranquilizers, antidepressants, and sleeping pills. And children may be just as deeply affected as their parents; according to The Washington Post, a recent national survey of 500 teenagers found that already, "70% fear 'an immediate negative impact' on the security of their families."
Former senator Phil Gramm's infamously dismissive comment declaring the US in the midst of a "mental recession" is likely to turn out to be true in a way he never intended. Financial irresponsibility and lack of oversight are indeed creating the conditions for "mental" disturbance. The associated loss of confidence and hope further threatens the trust upon which credit and the financial markets depend.
Even when trauma is reliably over, the feelings of being overwhelmed and stuck persist. Five years after the war in Kosovo, we found that 44% of all high school seniors in the Suhareka region still had symptoms of PTSD. And when stress is ongoing, its symptoms and the accompanying depression are continually reinforced. Some Americans will never recover financially or emotionally from the loss of jobs and homes and savings. Others will be long unemployed, and their misfortune and lack of income -- and the emotional distress both bring -- will affect businesses in their communities as well as in their own families and friends. Meanwhile, vast numbers, perhaps our entire population, will likely feel the uncertainty and vulnerability that the ongoing and deepening financial crisis is provoking -- feelings that still bedevil so many who lived through the Great Depression. One recent landmark study on the influence of genetics and "life stress" showed that of all possible causes, financial setbacks were most likely to contribute to depression.
In Gaza and Israel -- where the consequences and threats of terrorist bombings are ever-present ¬¬¬-- and in Kosovo and New Orleans, my colleagues and I have helped tens of thousands of fearful and vulnerable people in the midst of chaos. We teach them meditation, deep breathing and movement techniques, mental images, and exercise. Learning these techniques, they find places of calm and control within themselves, discover solutions to problems that had seemed unsolvable, and raise their depleted physical and emotional energy. Acting to help themselves, they find antidotes to the helplessness and hopelessness that are the hallmarks of depression and traumatic stress. Learning together they discover mutual support and a renewed sense of community.
In Gaza, in the most vulnerable parts of Israel, and in New Orleans, there is another factor that makes people's stress and depression -- and, yes, their anger as well -- so much worse. This is the sense of being dismissed and neglected by the larger world on which they had once depended.
These feelings of neglect, deception, and disrespect are only increasing as the financial crisis deepens here and expands overseas. They must be addressed. The various bailouts are initial investments in confidence as well as credit, the first signs of a public assumption of responsibility. But they are only a down payment on the far more comprehensive measures that must follow, and should only be the first step in the government's effort to regain the trust that is necessary to real recovery.
As a country, we must honestly admit to and address the causes of our crisis -- greed, arrogance, and indifference. Then we must begin to pay honest, ongoing attention to the concerns of a population that feels betrayed, vulnerable, and abandoned. These steps will promote stress reduction as well as provide fiscal reassurance. Meanwhile, we have to learn, quite literally, to breathe deeply, to relax in the midst of fear and uncertainty, to trust that we, like the Israelis and Palestinians and New Orleanians, can grow and change through adversity. We cannot avoid the fear and the stress in the world in these troubled times. We can however, learn to live more peacefully with them.
James S. Gordon, a Washington DC-based psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.