As the March unemployment numbers showed another huge increase in the number of jobless Americans, one occupation is in greater demand across the country: providing counseling services to jobless people whose emotional distress is outpacing their financial distress. “We are simply beyond capacity at this point,” said Courtney Prentis, director of Catholic Charities Community Services Southside in St. Louis, Mo. “We started seeing a surge starting late summer to late fall. We thought it would subside a little bit over the holidays,” she added. “That did not happen. We are looking at potentially running a wait list for non-urgent mental health needs.”
California. Dave Ross, a counselor with Catholic Charities in the San Francisco Bay area, said he sees a “spread of effect” in the clients who now come seeking help. It’s akin, he explained, to a “chain reaction.” “Somebody loses their job in the family” but they don’t feel too bad, “because their spouse is working.” Then “their spouse loses their job...but that’s okay because they have savings,” he continued. “Then the savings get depleted.” Ross said households are then forced to think about “things they never thought of before. Sign-ups for Little League are $150. Do you spend that for rent, food or your kid’s Little League?” Parents feel shame, Ross said, as they believe “I should be able to rise above this.”
One thing that is different in this economic slump, according to Ross, is the number of “new poor” seeking help. Without any experience of poverty in their lives, “they don’t know how to be poor.” Ross related the case of one couple who came into a Catholic Charities office. “We start chatting a little bit—about how the day was going,” he said. “I asked, ‘How can I help you?’ [The man] starts crying. ‘We need to know how to get shelter, we need to know how to get food. We used to give to Catholic Charities, but now we’re in a position where we need to get help.’”
Nebraska. Melissa Brestel, a counselor for Catholic Charities of Omaha, Neb., said trying to treat an individual’s depression in the midst of the economic slump is “a really huge challenge for us. Before the economy got really difficult, you’d manage their stress and manage their depression. Unfortu-nately, we can’t help people get jobs. We can’t force the market to do what people need it to do,” she said. “We try to help them find meaning in their lives.... We help people redefine themselves a little bit differently,” through such things as volunteer activity or church programs. Brestel said the counselors themselves are also feeling the stress of the situation. “We’ve had to make a few referrals with our employee assistance program to help therapists find some balance in their life,” she said.
Michigan. Michigan’s unemployment rate reached 11.6 percent in February, largely as a result of job losses in the collapsing American auto industry. But “It’s not like I’m seeing a lot of G.M. and Chrysler execs,” said Pina Newman, a counselor for Catholic Social Services of Oakland County. “I’m seeing a lot of people in the labor and construction industry. Carpentry, plumbing, electrical work—their trades are coming to a screeching halt.” Newman said some of her clients—she works with 20 to 25 people and she doesn’t even work full time—are resigned to their situation. “Some people walk around with ‘this is my fate and this is where I’m going to be,’ and those people are chronically that way,” she said.