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Cascade Briefs: October 2009

How to Counsel People Going Through
the Emotional Stress of Foreclosure

This is a summary of highlights from a presentation by R. Dandridge Collins, Ph.D., to housing counselors about how they can help families cope with the stress of facing foreclosure and how counselors can deal with the stress of foreclosure counseling. The talk was organized by the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition’s Foreclosure Prevention Task Force and was held on September 18, 2009, at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Collins, a licensed Pennsylvania psychologist and ordained minister, is the author of the book, The Trauma Zone: Trusting God for Emotional Healing.

Counselors who counsel homeowners through the foreclosure process are counseling people at a time of emotional turmoil. The counselors develop compassion fatigue as a result of bearing other people’s burdens and hearing one sad story after another.

The threat of losing one’s home is traumatic. People who are experiencing overwhelming stress need relief, comfort, and reassurance.
Homeowners and others facing overwhelming stress often display five types of traumatic behavior. The types, and possible responses, are described below.

They can’t balance their emotions. Psychological distress causes many people to over-react or become numb.

  • Focus on emotional balance.
  • Point out that being out of money doesn’t mean we are out of hope.
  • Don’t isolate — reach out for help.
  • Avoid panic, worry, rage, and despair.

They can’t tell time. Problems from the past and present seem to merge.

  • Focus on the here and now.
  • Help consumers stay in the present.
  • Be aware that many people have had foreclosure problems in their history. Memories of these experiences may affect their ability to concentrate on the task at hand: saving their home.
  • Be aware that some people may have nightmares and flashbacks.
  • Redirect consumers away from past difficulties to practical help you can offer right now.

They can’t move. When people become overwhelmed, they become stuck, sometimes for years.

  • Encourage follow through.
  • Be aware that many people shut down as a way of managing stress.
  • Recognize signs of shut down; e.g., making promises but not following through on them.
  • Provide do-able action steps.
  • Reinforce follow-through behavior with encouragement.

They can’t learn. Traumatized people tend to repeatedly make the same mistakes.

  • Allow your mistakes to become your mentors, not your tormentors.
  • Recognize that people who are having problems with their mortgages have had previous problems with credit and debt.
  • Encourage homeowners that this is a time to break that cycle.
  • Highlight old patterns that created the problem.
  • Outline new behaviors that can restore creditworthiness.

They can’t see. Some people avoid problems in the hope that they will go away.

  • Problems faced are problems mastered.
  • Let families know that avoidance of something stressful is understandable but not helpful.
  • Counsel them that avoidance is a disaster strategy with financial institutions.
  • Advise them that doing nothing will speed up the foreclosure process. True relief will come by addressing the problem that has been avoided, e.g., reaching an agreement on a loan modification and following the guidelines of the modification.

Recommendations for Counselors

It is important for counselors to:

  • Let go of unresolved problems at the end of the day.
  • Maintain balance by developing a rewarding personal life.
  • Be self-nurturing and replenish yourself.
  • Spend time with friends and relatives and have a hobby outside of work.
  • Get support from colleagues where you work.

Homeowners who lose their homes need to regroup and rebuild. You can guide them to rebuild their credit and make better choices.

Stay within your own field of knowledge. Don’t be afraid to refer homeowners for counseling at the mental health center in your neighborhood if you see danger signals. If the homeowner has major depression, has significant changes in his or her eating and sleeping habits, or makes threats about themselves or other people or property, get the mental health center or other mental health providers involved.

Recommendations for Parents

Parents who have financial problems may sometimes become overwhelmed and act in unproductive ways that cause emotional problems in children.

Parents should remember to:

  • Practice healthy boundaries, which keep relationships safe and sound;
  • Avoid sharing too much information about financial difficulties with children; and
  • Speak about the financial issues that our children can understand.

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Philadelphia, PA 19106-1574

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