Local doctors notice uptick in recession-related illnesses

Local doctors notice uptick in recession-related illnesses

CHAMPAIGN – The recession may be having an unhealthy effect on more than your bank account.

It's making a lot of people sick, too. Doctors are seeing more stress-related illnesses these days, and from what many patients are telling them, a lot of the stress is coming from lost jobs and money worries.

"We're seeing a lot of anxiety and a lot of depression," said Dr. Lenley Jackson, a family practice physician with Provena Medical Group. "There is a lot of insomnia, but that's linked to the anxiety and depression."

Other ailments doctors are seeing more of these days: Upset stomachs, panic attacks, uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure and pains in the chest, neck and back.

"They may come in for back or neck pain," Jackson said. "But during the visit, I learn a spouse has been laid off, or an entire retirement account has been wiped out."

Dr. Ingrid Antonsen, head of family medicine at Christie Clinic, said a lot of patients are making appointments with her to talk about their job and money stresses, and she's finding their stories heart-breaking.

Some patients have nobody at home to listen to them and give them a hug, she said. Going to see a doctor is a way of reaching out.

"They just want to know that somebody is listening, to reinforce to them that even though this is a difficult time, they need to be good to themselves," she added.

Last time she saw anything like this was as a medical resident during the 1980s recession, Antonsen said, and this is worse.

"You see it across the board, from any economic level, from any kind of work," she said. "You're seeing it from highly educated to blue-collar, you're seeing it everywhere. Everybody is stressed out."

What can doctors do to help?

Antonsen and Jackson said they're doing a lot of listening and letting patients know they care. And in some cases, medications for anxiety and depression can help.

Both doctors say they're also encouraging their patients to manage their stress with some good self-care by choosing the right foods, getting regular exercise and avoiding the bad habits – overeating, drinking too much alcohol and smoking – that can only make things worse.

"A lot of times, people will feel stressed and they'll start eating," Jackson said. "They're just eating to try to fulfill a need."

For some patients, professional counseling could help, he said.

The Mental Health Center of Champaign County, which offers counseling on a sliding-fee scale, is doing its best to keep up with an increased demand for counseling – but there was already a shortage of mental health services in the community before the recession hit, said Chief Executive Sheila Ferguson.

"Financial stress is definitely one of the (mental health) risk factors, and it does tend to put more stress on people," she said. "For people who have mild depression, it can make symptoms worsen."

For now, the organization's 24-hour crisis line is getting more of a workout, and some ideas are being explored to add group treatments that could serve a number of people at once, Ferguson said. The organization is also looking at increasing services in Rantoul, which has been hit particularly hard by layoffs and job cuts, she said.

Counseling is also available on a sliding-fee scale through Family Service of Champaign County.

Antonsen said doctors may see even more health effects from the recession down the road, because prolonged stress can have more serious consequences.

"Stress does terrible things to the body," she added.

Other health consequences may be in store as a result of skipping medical care entirely to save money.

A poll released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that over the last 12 months, 35 percent of Americans relied on home or over-the-counter remedies instead of seeing a doctor; nearly one-fourth skipped a recommended test or treatment; and about one-fifth didn't fill their prescriptions.

Staying healthy in a recession

— Make regular exercise part of your routine. Even if a health club is unaffordable, get out and walk.

— Take a multivitamin every day. Your body uses nutrients in times of stress.

— Spend quality time with friends and family.

— Refrain from unhealthful habits that will ultimately make everything worse — overeating, drinking too much alcohol and smoking.

— Don't let anxiety, depression and health problems get out of hand. Keep in contact with your primary care doctor and seek help from a counselor if needed.

— If life feels impossible, call the mental health crisis line at 359-4141. It is staffed 24 hours a day.

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