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RISMEDIA, February 4, 2010—(MCT)—Ethelda Lopez, a retired telephone company worker recently watched as her dream retirement home was auctioned off on the lawn outside a county courthouse in downtown Merced, California. “When I heard my address, it was so disheartening,” she said. “It’s amazing how it all works.”

For six months, she had made hundreds of calls to her mortgage company, federal officials, local political leaders—begging them all for lower payments or more time. No one paid heed. Wracked with depression and anxiety, she was too ashamed to tell her friends that she was losing her sprawling stucco-and-stone ranch home in the Atwater countryside.

Merced County ranked first in California for foreclosure filings in 2009, and sixth among counties nationwide, the national firm RealtyTrac reported recently. One in seven homes in this county of 250,000 people has been foreclosed on since September 2006, according to Foreclosure Radar, a California reporting service.

Over and over, residents caught up in the foreclosure crisis—homeowners, renters, even Realtors—report that they are suffering from stress or depression and are sometimes too ashamed to reach out for help. This is the hidden human fallout of foreclosure.

Thousands of new homes like Lopez’s sprouted from farmland countywide in the past five years. Merced was gearing up for a bright new future as a college hub. Optimistic developers dreamt of throngs of buyers paying $300,000 and more so that they could raise their children in neat stucco homes along tranquil cul-de-sacs. But the dream crumbled, and so did the peace-of-mind that home ownership is supposed to guarantee. Now, many homeowners are caught up in a nightmare, trying to figure out how to pay mortgages on dwellings worth a fraction of what they owe—or whether they should give up the dream and move on.

The drama plays out on the courthouse lawn like clockwork, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 and 3 p.m., when Realtors and investors bid for foreclosed homes like Lopez’s. The crisis shows no signs of abating. In November 2009, one in five Merced County homeowners was 90 days or more delinquent in payments, according to another service, First American CoreLogic. What the statistics don’t show is the human toll. Debt-wracked residents are suffering from anxiety, sleeplessness and depression in a universe gone sideways. Clinically, their suffering may not qualify as PTSD, the psychological state felt by soldiers, cops, first-responders and others after a traumatic experience. But far too many are in sad shape. Some are reaching out for help. At Merced-area health care clinics, workers report an increase in residents experiencing mental distress, and in the seriousness of their symptoms. Many new patients are homeowners or renters fearful of losing their homes and all the stability that a home provides, they say.

Many more feel so much shame about their financial and emotional distress that they shut themselves off, too fearful to ask for help. Entire families suffer as stress radiates from debt-plagued parents to their frightened children. “The trickle-down of this is big. Kids have stomach aches. They don’t want to go to school. Then you find out they’ve just moved in with someone else, their parents are about to lose their homes, they’re having trouble paying the mortgage,” said Elizabeth Morrison, clinical director of behavioral health at Golden Valley Health Centers, a network of 25 nonprofit community clinics and eight dental sites serving the Merced area.

School leaders are concerned, too. In the Merced Union High School District, which covers students in all of Merced, Atwater and Livingston, 613 students, or 7%, reported this year that they were “doubled-up” with another family in a single-family home. At Atwater High School, the number was 12%. Some residents fear they soon will have no home at all.

For residents on the verge of losing their homes, knowing that their neighbors and friends are in the same straits may or may not be reassuring. The stigma of foreclosure and bankruptcy may sting less here because so many people are struggling. But jobs remain scarce, and that, coupled with the high foreclosure rate, may make residents even more pessimistic, said Jim McDiarmid, director of behavioral sciences at the Mercy family medical residency program.

(c) 2010, Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.