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Advice For Families Facing Major Financial Problems

Aired 5/31/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Many questions are still unanswered about the murder-suicide in Skyline that dominated local headlines last week. We may never know why Alfredo Pimienta and his wife Georgina would kill their two daughters and themselves. According to multiple reports, the couple was dealing with financial problems. Family Psychotherapist Dr. David Peters joins us to talk about where families can go for help if they are facing financial difficulties, and to offer advice for people who may be feeling overwhelmed by their own life challenges.

Many questions are still unanswered about the murder-suicide in Skyline that dominated local headlines last week. We may never know why Alfredo Pimienta and his wife Georgina would kill their two daughters and themselves. According to multiple reports, the couple was dealing with financial problems. Family Psychotherapist Dr. David Peters joins us to talk about where families can go for help if they are facing financial difficulties, and to offer advice for people who may be feeling overwhelmed by their own life challenges.

Guest

David Peters, licensed family psychotherapist with a private practice in Mission Valley

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego was shocked last week by the deaths of four people found in their paradise hills home. Three in the pool, one in the bathtub. Police now say two of the deceased, Alfredo and Gina Pimienta killed their two daughters and themselves. Toxicology tests on the cause of death are still being conducted. Investigators say notes left by the family talked about financial difficulties, their rental home was federally subsidized, and their toe truck business was losing a big contract. But can economic leaderships really explain what caused this tragedy? I'd like to welcome my guest, David Peters, who is a licensed family psychotherapist with a practice in mission valley. There Peters, thank you so much for ginning us.

PETERS: Nice to be here.

ST. JOHN: So when you first heard this story about the family that were found dead in San Diego's south bay area, what were some of the thoughts that crossed your mind?

PETERS: Well, I just considered how isolated they must have felt. And how desperately scared they must have felt. People in this sort of situation can become panicked and feel alone, and feel there's no place to turn, and I can just picture the horrifying seen of the husband and wife perhaps talking about this. Of course, we dent know the exact details, but if it really was a murder suicide with a pact between the parents, then you could picture that they were scared and feeling no way out. And feeling a terrible humiliation, and feeling very alone.

ST. JOHN: Have you been seeing more clients coming in recently with concerns about financial stresses?

PETERS: Well, oddly enough a lot of people with severe financial stress think they can't afford to come in and see their therapist.

ST. JOHN: That's true.

PETERS: But many of my clients that have been coming in, I see financial stressors added on to their list of stresses, and it's definitely a significant impact on a good percentage of my clients right now.

ST. JOHN: So what could lead a person to consider suicide? I mean, there's a lot of different ways of dealing with life. What could lead them to consider that?

PETERS: Yeah. It's possible in some cases that a severe mental illness, say clinical depression or bipolar disorder is a major factor there. And when someone is in a severe mental illness, they can lose rational thought. And think in a dilutional way. Of course we don't know that's the case with this family. But sometimes it's not clinical depression at all but just a feeling of severe hopelessness. I've had clients who have been very hopeless and for years really not enjoying life at all. Really hating their life for years. I've had them look me in the eye and say, you know, I reserve the right to kill myself. I have the ability, and I'm not gonna do it this week, but I'm not gonna tell you when I'm gonna do it if I do.

ST. JOHN: Should -- to which you respond -- how do you respond to something hike that?

PETERS: In that situation, I try and attend to my empathy for them, helping them see that I'm attending to them as closely as possible, and trying to feel what they feel. The issue is connection versus disconnection. When we feel I connection with our fellow human beings, with family members, with loved ones, we feel supported and we think more rationally. When we feel a disconnection between our and our family, or a disconnection between ourselves and the rest of the word, that increases the chances of I rational thoughts. And then suicidal thoughts can take over. Especially when there's no one to check your way of thinking and to give you an experience that there may be another root in life. Some other way to have hope. ?

A. So if you're in a position where a friend expresses that kind of thoughts to you, the natural tendency is to say oh, my deadness, no, don't even think of that, but is that perhaps -- is there a better way to respond to that?

PETERS: Well, that is actually one of the better ways to respond. One of the worst ways, what sometimes happens is people withdraw from the suicidal person, they hear the person talking negatively and making veiled threats, and they get kind of scared and they pull back. And now you have someone who already feels alone and misunderstood and angry, and their friends or loved ones are pulling away from them. Then they think more irrationally. And so what you want to do if you notice someone making a veiled threat, and usually a veiled threat is something like, well, you'll see some day or this isn't gonna last much longer. Those veiled threats, it's important to get closer to them, talk with them, spend more time with them, and let them talk about how hard a time they're having, let them express their thoughts and feelings, and let them know that they're trying to understand. And sometimes you want to directly ask them, say, hey, you've been looking really down lately. I hear some of the things you're saying, I want to know, is there a risk of you killing yourself? And that's a difficult thing for people to ask. It's so awkward and embarrassing. It takes a little bit of courage to ask someone you love are you thinking of killing yourself? People will usually say, you won't do anything, will you? And that is an isolation comment right this. It says I can't even say what you're thinking about, and that person then wants to protect you from their negative thoughts so they pull away further. You have to go right to it and say, you know, I'm really concerned, you've been speaking in very uncomfortable ways, are you thinking of hurting yourself or killing yourself? Let's talk.

ST. JOHN: Of course, in the case of this family, all the neighbors had no idea, they thought the family is doing just fine, they seemed to be good parents , they were at the pool, they were enjoying. What kind of what kind of clues do you think people should be looking for? I guess you'd have to be a really close friend.

PETERS: You'd have to be a very close friend and know them well. And I don't know the particulars of that particular family, but no doubt from what we're reading most people had no idea. And they saw the person cleaning out the garage, I guess, the father, and that's sort of that preparing for the inevitable, the getting your affairs in order. But that by itself, no one would consider that as a suicidal preparation.

ST. JOHN: Spring cleaning, it's a positive thing.

PETERS: Spring cleaning. So in this -- in some cases, you just don't upon. Life can be tricky that way. We want to know that there are answers to every problem but in preventing suicide, some families or some individuals, they're just not letting you in on what they're thinking about.

ST. JOHN: Now, what would make a person consider killing their whole family with them?

PETERS: Yeah, here's the strange cases. There are cases such as in really ugly custody battles within a divorce where someone's severely angry and maybe psychopathic, it's a revenge sort of killing, I'll kill me and I'll kill the kids too just to get back at you. This is an act of selfishness. But in other cases, someone feels there's no way out. They have to move on. They have to kill themselves. But they still love their family members, and they don't want to leave them behind. In their delusional thinking, in their irrational state they think of it more as an act of love, taking their family with them so that their family is not abandoned. And of course that's bizarre thinking, but that's what can happen when someone is truly cut off from reasonable thought, and where they may be seriously depressed or in a panic.

ST. JOHN: So what kind of -- I don't know if advice is the right word. But how do you work with someone who is that seriously depressed without all hope?

PETERS: If I sense that there's an imminent risk, in the next couple of days they could kill themselves, then I -- of course I'm under legal obligation and ethical obligation to intervene and maybe get them to a hospital where they can be watched and monitored. Psychiatric hospitals are not often places where people get well, they're often places where people are held to keep them safe until they're safe enough to pull back out again. But I definitely as a therapist would increase by contacts with them, keep an e-mail contact or phone contact. Track them, ask them to come in more often, that sort of thing. And if you were not a psychotherapist, and the majority of listeners are not, and they feel that someone is the risk, make sure they're seeing a therapist, make sure they're talking with their doctor, and then check in on them every day or several times a day. It's okay if someone's really, really in a bad state to say why don't you come over and live with us for the next couple of day? I just think you're really, really in a danger right now. Let's talk. Let's stick together right now. We'll see you through this.

ST. JOHN: So that of course is someone who is a very close friend who is willing to do that. . And that's what everybody needs I guess to pull them out. But is there somewhere else that you would recommend people who've got severe financial problems go to actually get some practical help?

PETERS: Well, yes. People with severe financial difficulties, they have to find food, they have to find shelter, they have to find -- how are they gonna keep their automobile run something there are support systems. With San Diego there is a resource hot line, you just dial four -- no, 211.

ST. JOHN: 211. Uh-huh.

PETERS: I made this mistake before. You just dial 211 on your phone. And there's a computer database of all possible social services available in San Diego county are there, to help you problem solve, if need a place to sleep or if you need a place to put your kids or if you need gas money, or if you need food. All of those problems can be addressed with one phone call to 211.

ST. JOHN: Now it seems as though the children in this situation were completely unaware of what was in their parents' minds. If you are a parent, and having a great deal of stress, and thinking about how to deal with what seems like a hopeless situation in your life, how much should you share that with your children?

PETERS: I have a rule of thumb with all my families, with all my parents. I say share only as much as your child can reasonable understand. Small children don't understand much at all about the economy or about why there's no money or why there's no food. Adolescents can understand an awful lot, and they deserve to have some explanation. If there's things you're not telling them, you say there are some things I'm not telling you because they're for us to work on, and we'll talk care of them. But young people are savvy. Young people know what's going on. They hear the news. And so it's best to just be as honest with them as they're able to tolerate.

ST. JOHN: And what about the people who were friends of or neighbors of the family that died? They may be experiencing some guilt about not having been able to foresee what was gonna happen, not being able to prevent it. What would you say to that?

PETERS: Yeah, there's a full range of feelings among the family members that were left behind. Certainly people are gonna go through a severe grief process here. Friends of the children, school friends of the children are now in shock, missing their friends. The meaninglessness of the act is so tragic for them. And so the grief process can feel and look just like clinical depression. And it really is kind of a short term clinical depression for some people. But it's normal grief, and you have to work through it. I tell people grieve purposely, grieve consciously. Don't stay away from it. Talk with friends, talk with family, participate in religious rituals if that is your persuasion. And do the talking, maybe writing, poetry writing, write in your journal. It's important to express it in a focused way, and then take time away from it. So I'm gonna grieve for an hour or two with my friends, and then I'm gonna stop, I'm gonna do things that are meaningful to me. I'm gonna assert life, I'm gonna plant flowers, I'm gonna go grocery shopping, I'm gonna cook a nice deal for my kids. That sort of thing. And then the next day, I'm feeling sad, I can pull away for another hour of purposeful grieving. So you do it in a conscious way. Compartmentalized from other hours of your life. So you're not drowning in grief, but you're also not avoiding it. And this is a very effective way to grow through the tragedy and to heal yourself and help your children heal.

ST. JOHN: So that's interesting. You feel like people have the power to actually stop grieving and set it aside and say I'm gonna allocate a certain time of day for this?

PETERS: Well, it's a bit of a mental trick. The closer you are, the more vulnerable you are, the harder it is to do. But a grief process for at a family member, say it's your sister who was killed here, that could take a year or two of grieving. And people don't want to -- what people experience when someone's dead, if I stop thinking about them, then I'm disrespecting them, that I'm not loving them enough. I have to hold them in my mind. Well, that can destroy your current life, you do have to go to work, you have to take care of your inch which, you have to give your children reason for hope. You try and compartmentalize it to purposeful times, rituals, prayer, talking, sharing, writing, specify times. Say okay, now I'm gonna take a break, and you can do this with practice, you thought say, mind, I'm gonna put that aside right now. I'm gonna come back to it. Right now I'm gonna do something that's life giving or life fulfilling, or just get tasks done that have to be done. And if you know you're gonna come back to it, then you don't feel like you're neglecting the loved ones, and you don't feel like you're neglecting your feelings because you've already scheduled the time that you're going to do grieving again.

ST. JOHN: So I have to come back to the person who is severely depressed and ask you whether some people have the ability to do that same thing with the depression and the hopelessness.

PETERS: It's much more difficult if it's truly a clinical depression. Then what you have is something going on organic in the brain. The brain is truly slowing down, it's losing its ability to unfocus, it ruminates over and over again. And you end up with sleep deprivation. So if someone's experiencing true signs of a clinical depression, sometimes you need to do things to just address the symptoms, which are vigorous exercise, fixed sleep patterns, medication if necessary. But we know now people on the air have heard me say this many times, good physical exercise on a daily basis is a powerful as 20 milligrams of Prozac for a clinical depression, and frequently, it's all we need.

ST. JOHN: So it just takes somebody actually confronting it and saying this is really happening?

PETERS: Yeah, this is really happening or confronting your family member or friend and saying you don't look well now. You look like you're falling into a depression. Let's do something about it. Let's consult someone.

ST. JOHN: So in the minute we have left, what lessons can people learn from that tragic story?

PETERS: Well, sadly, tragedies happen in our life. And some things remain unexplainable. And we don't get to resolve them with the perfect answer or explanation. What we can do is pick up the pieces, build hope for the future, and commit to our current relationships that remain.

ST. JOHN: Well, David, thank you very much for being with us.

PETERS: It's nice to be with you, Alison.

ST. JOHN: That's David Peters, who is a licensed family psychotherapist, and he has a practice in Mission Valley.

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