Saturday, June 13, 2009

It's the Economy, Stupid

In the medium-large school district where I work, the CISM teams typically do one or two major responses in a year. We do lots of smaller ones -- helping out when a teacher or parent has died after a long illness -- but only the occasional biggy. By biggy, here, I mean the true trauma -- an event that throws a whole school community or a whole district for a loop, scares parents, upsets children, and renders staff unable to work. We are lucky enough to be in an area with a relatively low crime rate, and so major incidents involving our schools are the exception, not the rule.

That continued to be true until this past winter. Things started out slowly enough. A car accident right around Thanksgiving killed an elementary student, and the responsible team was dispatched to help that school and its parents, children and staff, as well as a neighboring elementary school where the student attended. It was tragic and traumatic. And, unfortunately, this sort of thing just happens. Soon, things returned to the new normal.

In January, a student at one of our high schools collapsed in the hallway outside of his gym class and died. This is huge. This is, to a school, what a line of duty death is for first responders, and it hit the school and community hard.

That same week, a student at another high school was found unconscious in a snow bank in the next town over. Her boyfriend had allegedly hit her over the head with a hammer. She died a week later.

Two weeks later, a mom at one school who worked in the lunch program at another failed to pick up her child from after school childcare. She was found dead in her apartment, allegedly strangled by her boyfriend.

The next day, a student jumped off an overpass headfirst onto the highway. By this point, there truly was no team fully available to respond. Despite having 30 trained CISM responders and dividing the responsibility, we were all burnt out. We called for mutual aid from the county, and we asked ourselves what on earth was going on.

Our city has a homicide rate of less than one per year, but there had been two domestic violence homicides in two three weeks. Our schools have two big tragedies a year, and we had had four in less than a month.

And it wasn't just a bad run for our school district. The county team began responding to suicides in the community and trauma in neighboring school districts at an increased clip as well. What could account for the feeling that our county had suddenly stepped into a black hole?

My answer is simple. To quote Bill Clinton, it's the economy, stupid. My district is not only in the middle of a relatively low crime, high income area, it's also in the middle of Michigan. And while our county has about the same unemployment rate as the rest of the country, we are used to having a much lower one, and the state as a whole has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Engineers and pharmacologists have been laid off left and right from the big 3 automakers and from Pfizer, which moved a major plant out of town. Auto suppliers were next to take a hit, along with the support staff -- from custodians to coffee shop owners -- who suppored Pfizer. We went into recession two years before the rest of the country, and the light is not at the end of the tunnel.

The most naively obvious connection between the economy and tragedy is that suicide rates go up when the economy is bad, because people who are in economic straits feel hopeless. This theory is widely accepted but not without controversy. But that hardly explains all that happened in our district or community. It's a little more nuanced than that.

First of all, there is, unfortunately, a baseline rate of tragedy in the world. Our district had a couple of big traumatic events a year before the economy tanked, and a bad economy certainly doesn't make that any better. We are starting from a basic level of trauma that will always happen. Arguably, we then add on a certain number of adult suicides from people who are unemployed.

But the economy has other, more subtle, effects on the rate of traumatic events. People with a propensity to violence, placed under stress, become more violent. Children at risk for suicide attempt it when their parents lose their jobs. People drive instead of flying, which is more dangerous on a per-mile-traveled basis. People neglect their health care. People are more likely to steal, which endangers and potentially traumatizes others. And events that would be awful under normal circumstances take on an added burden when families must struggle to pay for hospital or funeral expenses.

In short, the economy has everyone standing at least a little closer to their personal "edge," so it takes at least a little less to push them over. And of course, in a tight economy, money for crisis intervention is one of the first things to go. The Quarterback hopes what she does will be obscure but well funded again sooner rather than later.


Chuck Hatt said...

Yes, it's interesting how economic change and stress can eat away at all kinds of personal and community infrastructure and I'm thinking we have probably not seen the worst.

I hope that we will pass the enhanced millage this fall. Working in a school district where teachers have had to be laid off would obviously create suffering for those directly affected but also a sort of guilt and trauma for those not directly affected. Right now is a good time to be extra sensitive to the feelings and problems of others.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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