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November 27, 2014

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Thriving in Las Vegas: Tips from therapists for how to beat the blues

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Erik Stein

This story was first published in the March 23 issue of The Sunday.

Ah, all the ways Las Vegas tries to break us down! Gambling. Booze. Drugs. Sex. Conflicting work shifts. Loneliness. Foreclosures. Unemployment.

Las Vegas can make us dysfunctional, if not outright crazy, or deeply depressed, or filled with anxiety. Who ya gonna call?

Your therapist.

And oh, the stories they hear, of the dangers, the land mines, the pressures and expectations and struggles of living in Las Vegas.

Here’s what they* tell us, and we’re passing it along. Maybe we can save you a hundred bucks. And we’ve got some tips and suggestions of our own to help you thrive in this town of ours.

* For this story, we spoke with Caitlin Olsen, a family therapist at Kayenta Therapy Centers; Katherine Hertlein, UNLV’s program director of marriage and family therapy; and David Kramer, a marriage and family therapist.

    • Financially stressed?

      Few people escaped the financial blues when the Great Recession whacked Las Vegas. People were getting laid off and losing their homes in record numbers; others were making payments on mortgages that were higher than their houses were worth.

      How’s the recovery going? Unemployment checks probably didn’t go far. Some of us had to accept lesser-paying jobs than before and felt demeaned. We lost our homes and moved into apartments, our kids readjusting to new schools and hunting for new friends.

      Pick the adjective that best describes how you feel (multiple answers accepted): anxious, stressed, depressed, hopeless, angry, bitter, belittled. And there’s little doubt that these feelings affect everyone in your household.

      Solutions

      • Therapy can help deal with the emotional toll of facing financial stress. A good list of professionals can be found at therapists.psychologytoday.com.

      • You may qualify for a price break at the UNLV Center for Individual, Couple and Family Counseling (unlv.edu/cicfc).

      • A United Way-affiliated program offers various sorts of free assistance and support in dealing with financial problems. Check out Consumer Credit Counseling Service (financialguidancecenter.org), 2650 S. Jones Blvd., Las Vegas, NV 89146; (702) 364-0344.

      • Self help? Fight the feeling of hopelessness and make the most of the time unemployed by going back to school or entering a job-training program. The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation may be helpful (detr.state.nv.us).

    • Feeling lonely?

      Life’s curveballs are always a bit more tolerable when you’ve got family or close friends to lean on for support. But chances are, you don’t have family in town or close friends. No other state has fewer native residents, meaning that a two-generation family is a rarity in Nevada. And close friends? It’s hard developing trusting relationships in a state that’s famously transient, and where a three-shift town makes it hard to hang out with buddies when the whistle blows at 5.

      “A lot of people here lack a support system because it is a very transient city,” family therapist Caitlin Olsen said. “They don’t have their grandparents here to help with child care or other support if they’re going through a tough time.”

      Katherine Hertlein, who directs the family and marriage therapy program at UNLV, said she worked with a client who strongly balked at moving to Las Vegas but relented when her partner got a job here.

      “She felt lonely and cut off here, and she wanted to be home with family and friends,” she said.

      Solutions

      This one falls on you. Join clubs, sign up for a recreational sports team, volunteer at a worthwhile organization, find a comfortable church, take a community college class. Then, introduce yourself and build your own support community.

      • Here’s a good place to start: meetup.com. You’ll find all sorts of informal groups with wide-ranging interests, dedicated to Las Vegas newcomers, or people over 50, or dog owners, or people who want to study the Bible or go rock climbing or, well, the list goes on.

      • Another good source of organizations that might interest you: lasvegas.craigslist.org, and click on a topic (such as “groups”).

      • And for a good list of what’s happening in town, check out a calendar of activities, such as lasvegassun.com/events.

    • Teens: Speak up if you're struggling

      Surviving one’s teenage years — dealing with shifting relationships, bullying and drugs and alcohol — can be a challenge in any community. But Las Vegas teenagers are also exposed to emotional strains and stresses that are peculiar to life here. Among the major issues that confront Las Vegas teens:

      A 24-hour culture

      This is a three-shift town, and parents’ schedules may conflict with their children’s school day.

      “Students may go home to an empty house, or the parent may have to leave for a night shift just a few hours after the child arrives home,” said Alane McQueeney Lotz, high school counseling specialist for the Clark County School District. “There is no support or follow-up for homework because the parent is not there.”

      In some cases, older children may have to care for younger siblings at the expense of their own studies and sometimes are responsible for getting the youngsters to school in the morning.

      Solution?

      “If they are struggling with academics because of extra responsibility at home, the first thing we do is discuss the impact on their studies and brainstorm with the family,” McQueeney Lotz said. “We work with each individual student and their unique situation. We will see if either parent can adjust his or her schedule to create more support and supervision at home, or sometimes a family member or friend can help.”

      Often parents may not even realize that their child is struggling, so the teenager needs to speak up. A session with a counselor in which parents can find out about after-school programs to help supervise younger children can ease the burden some teenagers experience.

      Transiency

      If you think it’s difficult to move and meet your neighbors, imagine being dropped into a school with 2,000 new faces.

      “There is a lot of movement and students are coming and going, in and out or within the valley, at a high rate,” McQueeney Lotz said. “It’s difficult for students to get on board with academics when they are enrolling in a new school and forced to make new friends over and over again.

      “When we ask them why they are struggling with a course, they often reply that they just lost their home and had to move. Maybe they are living with relatives and it’s harder to get to school now. They are struggling all the way around.”

      Solution? If a student is facing a midterm transfer, which causes the greatest disruption in academics, the School District will work to see whether it’s possible for the child to finish the semester at his current school.

      Transfer students are linked with their new teachers and a tutoring program to ease the transition.

      “Socially, we encourage the student to get involved in activities, sports and clubs, to feel more connected in that community,” McQueeney Lotz said.

      If the teenager is involved in a club sport, he should continue.

      Clark County schools have leadership groups that adopt new students to help them feel welcome, said Gwen LaFond, the School District’s director of guidance counseling services. Student Council members may pair up with transfer students to show them the ropes, how to get around their new campus and what resources are available.

      Dropping out

      In Las Vegas, more than most American cities, jobs with adequate salaries are available to those with just a high school diploma, if even that.

      Students “see their parents making OK money in the service industry, they don’t necessarily value secondary education as much, and they leave school,” LaFond said.

      “We never want to discount any type of work, and never want to say that’s not a good path,” LaFond said. “But we do want to make sure students are aware of college availability and all of their options.”

      Counselors will work with students and their families to leave as many academic doors open as possible and work with teens who must contribute to the family finances. If a student must work during the day, LaFond said, night school is available.

      Spotting, helping emotionally struggling students

      Children often send signals that they are not doing well.

      “Look for any change in behavior,” McQueeney Lotz said. “If a student is doing well in school and involved and participating in family life, and then he changes — he withdraws, exhibits a lack of engagement, is uninterested in school, his grades are falling — then something is up.”

      In a proactive move, counselors visit every third-, seventh- and ninth-grade classroom to discuss stresses that young people face and to promote healthy coping skills and other available resources.

      “We always encourage students to utilize the counselor or a trusted adult on campus, and to share their concern so they can get the help or guidance they need,” LaFond said.

      The School District website — ccsd.net/parents/parentlink — has resources to help parents track their grades, address bullies and to help a child cope with a recent loss.

    • Keeping up with visitors

      So your long-lost cousin is coming to visit and wants you to show him the town.

      Out-of-town family and friends can put a lot of stress on a household. The hosts may feel pressure to go out and live it up, spending more than their budget allows.

      “Family and friends come and visit, and it interrupts the daily and weekly flow of life,” Hertlein said. “That can have implications for a relationship, especially if one person isn’t OK with all of the visitors. They may be going out and gambling more, and introducing financial issues that people wouldn’t have in another city.”

      Solutions

      • Set a strict budget and boundaries for yourself.

      • Let friends know what you do and do not participate in before they arrive, and don’t forget all the free activities and sights in town. (Visit vegas.com/attractions and click the link for “free attractions.”)

      • If it’s inconvenient to have your college buddy sleeping until noon in your living room every day for a month, point him toward some of those great midweek deals at local hotels.

    • Four tips to handling kids’ dreaded question: ‘Why?’

      Living in Las Vegas presents a host of challenges to our emotions and coping skills. Not the least among them for parents is how to respond to inquisitive young children who are exposed to a veritable minefield of risqué scenes, including advertisements featuring nearly nude women, and won’t hesitate to ask the most trying of all questions: “Why?”

      Hertlein said appropriate responses are based on the age, maturity and vocabulary of the child.

      “At some levels of development, it clearly might be an opportunity for the ‘birds and the bees’ talk. If we are talking about kids in elementary school, you want to balance a message of honesty with something developmentally appropriate and something they can understand.”

      Here are Hertlein’s tips:

      Find another way to say it

      Embrace synonyms in Sin City. If a child asks about an escort service billboard, try using the term “dates” in place of “sex,” which is more developmentally advanced.

      Two can play at that game

      When a child asks a question that may need a delicate answer, respond with, “Why do you ask?” (Hey, parents can ask “why” as well as children.) That may help a parent avoid broaching a topic that wasn’t on the child’s mind.

      Maybe now isn’t the right time

      Procrastinate.

      “Parents have the option to acknowledge it’s a conversation for a later time,” Hertlein said. “If the kid asks why, the parent can say it has to do with concepts they haven’t discussed, and they’d like to take the time to explain them. If the kid presses, repeat like a record player.”

      Hey, check out Buzz Lightyear

      If possible, avoid places where R-rated advertisements proliferate. When all else fails, distract the child with something more interesting, like the super-hero themed buskers on the Strip.

    • Fighting addictions?

      Las Vegas is full of temptation for addictive personalities, with gambling and alcohol at every turn.

      But Las Vegas also feeds another addiction: sex. Legal brothels are not too far away, strip clubs pepper the valley, mobile escort billboards cruise the Strip and prostitutes can be easily found.

      Olsen said the access to and acceptance of sex “makes it harder for people who are struggling with the addiction.”

      And here’s where Las Vegas can get you, coming and going. If you and your partner have an argument, where do you go to cool off? In most towns, you might take a solitary drive in a car, or go to a friend’s or relative’s place. Here, you flee to a bar, a strip club or a blackjack table.

      Solutions

      Programs for problem gambling, drinking, sex addiction and drugs are available in Las Vegas. Seek help for addiction problems, but also try to create distance between yourself and the places where your vice is available. Here are some useful websites to get you started:

      • Alcoholics Anonymous (aa.org)

      • Narcotics Anonymous (na.org)

      • Gamblers Anonymous (gamblersanonymous.org/ga)

      • National Institute on Drug Abuse (drugabuse.gov)

      • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (samhsa.gov)

      • Nevada Council on Problem Gambling (nevadacouncil.org)

      • Family Institute of Nevada Substance Abuse Awareness Program (familyinstituteofnevada.org)

      • Private-practice therapists, including the Kayenta Therapy Center (kayentatherapy.com), which also addresses issues involving pornography, compulsive eating and other addictions.

    • Dealing with odd work hours?

      With tens of thousands of us employed in a 24/7 industry — hospitality, military, hospitals, law enforcement and the like — it is not uncommon for spouses to work opposite shifts, and to only see each other for brief moments each day. That affects not only family logistics — when to eat, supervising children, when to visit friends or go to a movie — but can lead to a collapse of healthy communication that is needed to solve problems and coordinate schedules.

      “Sometimes just getting a couple to come in for a session at the same time can be hard,” Olsen said. “They don’t have any time together, and when they have to make time together, it’s usually because of a crisis. They rarely have positive interactions.”

      Solutions

      The stresses of conflicting schedules can manifest in poor communication — and alternatively, difficulty in finding time for good communication due to conflicting schedules can generate stress in relationships. One goal, then, is to make the most of your time together. Here are some tips, garnered from our experts and by searching the keywords “spouse, graveyard shift” on the Internet.

      • With email, Twitter, Facebook or other ways of messaging, write notes to one another — Hi sweetie, Johnny finished his homework, and the kids are in bed, Maria hopes we can visit the playground this weekend. Hope you enjoyed your dinner, see you in a few hours ...

      • Breakfast is the new dinner. Make it special.

      • Schedule date nights or days. They can be for fun or for serious discussions.

      • Try to coordinate vacation days off, to maximize time together.

      • MGM Resorts recommends to its night workers that they use ear plugs when sleeping during the day to quiet noises like passing cars and active neighbors, and to keep the bedroom dark by using heavy curtains or a sleep mask over your eyes. Good sleep is important for healthy relationships.

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