Wall Street Woes Hit Workers' Mental Health

The financial crisis on Wall Street isn't just hitting people's pocketbooks — it's also having effects on their mental health. Severe stress can spark some mental illnesses, or exacerbate them.

Diving markets and screaming headlines are enough to make people on and off Wall Street anxious. And that can be normal, says John Markowitz, a research psychiatrist at New York State Psychiatric Institute.

"If you're a little worried about your money and your work security, that well may be appropriate in a certain circumstance," says Markowitz.

Markowitz says that about a year ago, as the markets began to turn, he started seeing signs of job-related stress among some of his Wall Street patients. Psychiatrist Deborah Cross, who heads the New York State Psychiatric Association, says she saw changes among her Bear Stearns clients last spring after the collapse of the giant brokerage.

"[After Bear Stearns,] within a week to 10 days, when it really began to sink in to the people who were most affected — who were getting pink slips, who were seeing their friends getting the pink slips — then we started getting calls," says Cross.

Cross has yet to see changes from this week's fallout, but she expects to soon.

It's not just depression. Psychiatrists report that people who had their eating disorders under control may be pushed back into old behaviors. Substance abuse can become a problem. Family violence goes up. Some people have panic attacks.

You know you're in trouble when daily habits change, says New York City psychoanalyst Charles Goodstein. New symptoms such as "difficulties in eating and sleeping, changes in mood, irritability, a sense of worthlessness, and, for some, a sense of withdrawal" can be signs of mental health problems, says Goodstein.

Symptoms like agitation, the inability to concentrate, and thoughts of suicide indicate that a patient has moved from anxiety and sadness into clinical depression.

For people at the top of the failing Wall Street firms, the stress may take a different form.

"The big guys, the wheelers and dealers of the hedge funds, and the mutual funds and such, their stressors come from a little bit different angle. It's not the financial so much as it is the loss of their identity. And, if they don't have a life other than their company, then they really are at a loss," says Cross.

Psychiatrists who treat Wall Street traders say they expect the current woes will have more effect than the dot-com bust of 2000 because the financial situation is worse.

"Nobody was calling back then for the rescue of Internet companies, after all. Today we're talking icons of the American financial industry. Some Internet startup that went bust, well, that's one thing. Lehman Brothers? Merrill Lynch? Bear Stearns? Fannie Mae? Gee, this is a different story," says Goodstein.

Still, Markowitz says things are better than they were when the markets failed in 1929.

"Back in the Great Depression, there was great depression, I'm sure, but it was hard to diagnose. Nowadays we can accurately diagnose the conditions, and we know how to treat many of them," says Markowitz.

But that doesn't mean everyone will be able to get treatment. When jobs go, employer-paid health insurance goes, too.

"These people were well enough off that they didn't qualify for Medicaid, they were not old enough to qualify for Medicare, and they had no insurance," says Cross about her Bear Sterns patients.

Unemployment forced many to pay for health care from their savings, go to a public health clinic, or ask for reduced fees. This added stressor, says Cross, kept some suffering from depression or other problems from seeking care.

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