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Foreclosures lead to mental stress

on December 4, 2009

Rosa Garcia-Zuniga’s house is very neat and well decorated, with family photos and pictures hanging on the wall in the living room, and a bunch of white orchids on the wooden kitchen table. On a recent evening, her youngest son and two grandchildren were playing in the living room as she sat at the table watching them.

However, Zuniga, a 44-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, is concerned that this tranquil scene might not last long. She’s waiting for the bank’s decision to put the house into foreclosure, as her mortgage is eight months behind.

Since Zuniga was laid off early last year, she’s been worried about losing her house. “It’s too much stress, thinking of it every day: when it’s going to happen, what they’re gonna do, whether you have enough money to pay this month,” she said. “It’s hard, it’s very hard.”

In Richmond, many people are in a similar financial situation as Zuniga. As of today, 1,600 houses in Richmond are in foreclosure and pre-foreclosure, according to, an online aggregator of foreclosure information. Besides the financial stress experienced in foreclosure or pre-foreclosure, people may also suffer from severe mental stress, which can affect their physical health.

According to John Bateson, the Executive Director of Contra Costa Crisis Center, the center has received about 40 percent more calls in 2009 on their crisis line complaining about worries on economic-related issues, compared to last year.

“We’ve received a lot of calls from people who are impacted by the economy, whether they’ve had a home foreclosed, whether they’ve been laid off, whether they’ve lost retirement savings, etc.,” he said. “They all share the common problems like their finances are insufficient to meet their bases and their stress with how they’re going to provide their families,” Bateson continued.

The stress brought by the economic recession has been seen nationwide. According to the annual survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2009, 80 percent of Americans are stressed about their personal finances and the economy. As many as 47 percent of the survey sample reported having headaches, 35 percent had upset stomachs and 34 percent experienced muscular tension because of stress.

Because of the bad economy, Zuniga said, she’s having a hard time finding a full-time job. She was doing housecleaning work for a property company in San Francisco but was laid off when the company sold the property. Her husband lost his job as a construction worker in June last year. Now she’s doing housekeeping for a family in south Berkeley for nine hours a week, while her husband does odd jobs.

The stark drop of Zuniga’s family income has left her unable to pay the house mortgage. Her monthly payment was $2,400, yet now it’s only less than half of that.

Zuniga bought the three-bedroom house in northern Richmond in late 2004. At the time, it was valued at $360,000. But over the past five years, its value dropped to $66,000. The monthly mortgage is $2,250 and Zuniga hasn’t been able to afford it since this past January. She now can only pay a $1,500 monthly mortgage, yet the bank rejected her application to refinance.

Since she arrived in the United States at 15 years old, Zuniga has been doing housecleaning work in California over the past 30 years. Before she left El Salvador for the United States, all she heard about was the American dream. “People told me like this: ‘This is a dream, you’re going to find everything here.’”

She said she had been working very hard and thought her American dream had come true when she bought the house. However, now she’s concerned that the dream might be walking away.

Zuniga can’t help thinking of what would happen if her house went into foreclosure. “I think about it every day. I need to get some help. It’s really hard,” Zuniga said with tears in eyes, as she covered her face with her hands holding the notification paper from the bank warning about foreclosure. “I try to be strong, be strong every day, but it’s not easy.”

“I’m working, and I really want to keep the house,” she said.

Last December, she passed out at work and ended up in the hospital for five days. The doctor said her blood pressure was at a very high level, which Zuniga said she never had before. And the doctor suspected this might have been caused by long-term mental stress brought on by financial stress.

Bateson, with the Contra Costa Crisis Center, said that mental health and physical health issues are often interrelated, especially when people turn to addictive behaviors to cope with their problems. He suggested people should turn to professional counseling services to help ease the mental stress.

Most of Zuniga’s friends recently lost their houses during the economic downturn. Zuniga said one of her friends has been through foreclosure and now rents an apartment. This female friend, who is divorced with two children, complained to Zuniga that she couldn’t fall asleep thinking about her financial issues.

Zuniga said she has been praying to God every day and goes to church four times a week. She’s now looking for more jobs. “That’s my only hope, to find another job, or the bank can modify the loan.”

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