A travel editor receives some interesting calls from readers planning happy vacation getaways, but this one was different and disturbing. It was a call for help that went beyond the usual request for information.

The caller was middle-aged, highly literate, recently divorced and looking for a vacation that would change his solitary pattern of life by putting him back in touch with people. But this was more than simple loneliness or weariness--it was emotional and mental disequilibrium. The man refused to consider a cruise ship, where informal socializing is much easier than at a plush resort, because he feared that in his case the temptation to jump overboard might prove too strong.

There was no hysteria, no confusion, no audible sign of tension. Somehow, the frank admission of serious need seemed more ominous due to the calm way in which it was voiced. He said he was choosing a vacation "instead of a psychiatrist."

The editor made a few suggestions while explaining he could not offer a trip-planning service, advised the caller to consult a good travel agent, and later assigned the accompanying story.

Next to sex, says New York psychologist Stephen Shapiro, one of the subjects people fantasize about most is vacations.

"People spin incredible fantasies about how their vacations will change their lives," says Shapiro, co-author (with psychiatrist Alan Tuckman) of "Time Off: A Psychological Guide to Vacations." "They think the trip will give them a new personality or they'll find Mr. or Ms. Right or they'll be discovered by a film director and become rich and famous.

"The problem is, real life is not a vacation brochure. When reality doesn't match their fantasy, the person may lose all sense of pleasure in the trip and come home frustrated instead of refreshed."

For a vacation to succeed, he says, "it must be viewed as a complement to life, not a replacement for life or an escape from life. To expect anything else is to invite disappointment."

Most people do use their vacations as a way to "get a lift," he admits. "But that will only work within limits. If you're getting crochety from overwork, a holiday may help you feel better."

For someone who is "seriously depressed," he warns, "a vacation may make things worse. You may find yourself isolated in a strange place without your routines or your friends. That kind of stress could deepen the depression."

Typically, he says, a depressed person's vacation dream is that " 'If only I can get away, everything else will be wonderful.' But a vacation is not meant for dealing with critical stress or coping with personal problems. Refusing to face the problem and going off on a vacation merely insures its continuation and the destruction of an experience which should be devoted, presumably, to pleasure."

Someone experiencing a "critical level of stress," Shapiro says, "must follow a special regime that does not include an extended vacation." He recommends "working through the stressful incident or memory until it is out in the open and gone from the system." Often this requires the help of a mental health professional.

The most appropriate setting for this process "is not a faraway, sunlit beach," he says, "but in familiar surroundings. Sharing with a trusted friend helps." While a short break--such as a weekend away--may be useful, he cautions, "it's not a good idea for a seriously depressed person to go away alone."

An increasing number of adults are literally running away from home as a means of coping--or not coping--with problems, according to a report by Traveler's Aid Society social workers Catherine Hiatt and Ruth Spurlock. "Because travel is an inherent and normally healthy part of the American way of life," they write, "it is only in the past few years--as their numbers have mounted--that we have become aware of persons in 'crisis-flight' and identified them as a group warranting special concern."

While most of those who seek help from Traveler's Aid are from lower-income groups, the social workers speculate that "jet-setters" may actually be among those who use travel as a reaction to severe stress. "Among the affluent," they note, "whose incomes permit them to seek excitement and escape through perpetual world travel, there may be those who are in crisis-flight."

People in crisis-flight "are often those with emotional problems who are isolated from their families," says the Washington agency's casework director Barbara Brown. "In some cases, the families are so embarrassed by this person they will give them money to travel or do whatever they can to keep them away from home."

One of the greatest problems for the person trying to substitute a vacation for the psychiatrist's couch, says Washington travel agent Larry Frommer, "is the potential for reentry crisis. A person with real problems may find that a vacation temporarily allays the condition, but when they return to face the unbearable situation they fled from, they might find it even tougher to cope.

"They weren't traveling to pleasure--they were running away from life. So they were treating the symptom, not the underlying problem."

But vacations can help alleviate stress for many people, Frommer says, when viewed realistically and planned carefully. The best way to ensure a successful vacation, he says, "is to gear it around something you are interested in and will enjoy. If you love cooking, take a course in Italy or Paris. Go scuba diving, antiquing, bird-watching, see plays . . . whatever you love."

That way, even if vacation fantasies aren't fulfilled, he notes, "chances are you'll be with your kind of people. And the worst that can happen is you'll spend time doing something you enjoy."

Whether a vacation will alleviate or exacerbate depression, says psychologist John Neulinger, director of New York's Leisure Institute, "depends on the problem.

"For someone who's a workaholic, taking more time for vacations and learning how to relax and unwind could help. But a vacation should be a part of your total life--not just the two weeks out of the year when you really live," Neulinger advises.

A common vacation problem among hard-driving Americans, he says, "is that they feel they must work at having fun, which can destroy the whole purpose. On vacation you should be doing things because you want to do them--not because someone says that's what a vacation should be.

"And you should do things for their own sake, not for some end result. The object is not to win some prize or get the best tan, but to enjoy the process."

Often people use vacation as a time to evaluate the quality of their lives, explains the psychologist. They might return with a new vision. "You hear all the time about people who give up their job and life style and start a completely different kind of life," says Neulinger, who is setting up a counseling service for people who feel dissatisfied with life. Sometimes, like the artist Paul Gaugin, they run off to an exotic island to do it; other times they travel no further than their own backyard.

If someone is really trying to discover "What is the meaning of life?" he adds, "they might get an indication from a vacation. However I doubt that's the kind of question you can answer in two weeks."