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How do you measure economic anguish?

While it's routine to assign numbers to the recession's costs in terms of jobs lost or businesses relocated or shut down, assessing the human impact is far more difficult.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that people are hurting all over the nation. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) received more than 50,000 calls in March, a 12 percent increase from the previous year. And one third of Americans reported losing sleep over the economy and personal finance concerns, according to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation.

But how do you measure the pain? How much quality of life drains out with each passing day on the unemployment line? How many sleepless nights does it take before one's health begins to suffer? How much desperation can a person take when they and their family lose a home to foreclosure?

If the effects are hard to quantify, that doesn't make them any less devastating, said Matt Wray, an assistant professor of sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia who has studied the relationship between recessions and suicide rates.

"The bottom line is a bad economy is bad for your health, and that includes your mental health," he said.
Elkhart County, which saw its unemployment rate climb to 18.8 percent in March, would seem to be the ideal laboratory for an enterprising social scientist to develop a correlation between financial mayhem and human suffering.

In msnbc.com's short time in the city, we've met people who were losing their homes to foreclosure and others living in fear of losing a business.

And as reporter Tim Vandenack put it in a Page 1 story in Sunday's Elkhart Truth, "With 18.8 percent of Elkhart County's workforce now unemployed – 18, 506 people, up from 5,766 a year earlier – that's potentially a lot of angst out there." (Click here to read the Truth report in its entirety.)

For some, the despair can be overwhelming. Elkhart County Coroner John White told the newspaper that five of the eight county residents who committed suicide in the first three months of 2009 were experiencing financial difficulties when then ended their lives. That's a sharp increase from the first quarter of 2008, when the county saw only two suicides.

The sudden spike of self-inflicted deaths could be an anomaly. Wray, the Temple professor, said that most researchers believe that suicide rates climb only during the most severe recessions.

"During the Depression, I think the national suicide rate peaked at about 17 Americans per 100,000," he said. "Right now it is hovering between 10 and 11 and has been stable for several decades."

Dr. R. Scott Benson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Pensacola, Fla., said he doubts that financial hardship causes people who wouldn't otherwise consider suicide to take their lives. But he noted that joblessness can be a double whammy, as people suffering from depression may not be able to access the care they require.

"It's a big problem in this country that if you lose your job, you lose your health insurance," he said. "So people who have mental health and other health problems may not be able to get help. We have COBRA (insurance), but often the financial burden is huge and more than a normal family can manage."

Fortunately, as the Truth story documents and as msnsbc.com has learned, the help- thy-neighbor ethic remains strong in Elkhart.

Within days of our arrival in March, we met unemployed RV workers doing construction work at a new shelter for homeless women. We saw people at local churches and nonprofits stepping up to feed, clothe and shelter those hardest hit by the financial meltdown. And we talked to jobless residents who responded to their own setback by creating support groups to help others going through the same thing.

You'll meet some of these people in the weeks ahead. But in the meantime, we'd love to hear from you, whether you live in Elkhart or not, about how you or your friends are dealing with the pressure and pain that the recession is causing around the nation. And we'd like to know hour your community is pulling together in these tough times. You can share your thoughts in the comment section below.

In the meantime, here are some links that may be helpful if you're dealing with economic anguish:

•American Psychological Association: 'Managing stress in tough economic times'

•Financial fears trickle down to kids

•Edgy? Coping with an economic panic attack

•Interactive: How stress affects our bodies

And, finally, some important words from Wray, the suicide researcher:

"If you're in distress, there's help. Suicide is preventable, not inevitable. Talk to your rabbi or pastor, call the hot line, talk to someone and get help. … People should also educate themselves about the warning signs of suicide in others. There are a lot of myths and misperceptions out there that can actually stand in the way of preventing needless deaths."