The Persian Gulf War has caused an increasing amount of mental health problems at home, including excessive drinking, insomnia, eating disorders and drug abuse, according to the District's acting mental health commissioner.

"People are under more stress, and they are reaching for the bottle or snorting" drugs, said Raymond Patterson, who led a public forum yesterday on war-related anxiety.

Mental health professionals say more people are seeking counseling or flooding hot lines with around-the-clock calls. Adults and children are crowding meetings at many of the 500 National Mental Health Association affiliates around the country, according to officials. And they note that health maintenance organizations are forming new programs to help employees who find worry and sleeplessness interfering with work. As quickly as support groups are formed in school gymnasiums, community centers, churches and living rooms, they are being filled.

"Some people are suffering crying spells, and others have heightened phobias -- they are afraid to use the subway, afraid to fly," said Patterson, who said D.C. residents are particularly concerned about terrorist attacks.

"Some people have relatives over there and have had a loss of income and trying to deal with that," Patterson said. "Others are getting high, saying, 'Life is tough; I'm going to die anyway.' "

"Life is harder" because of the war, said E. Gail Anderson Holness, a District resident who attended the downtown District forum. Her brother, Army Capt. Donald E. Anderson Sr., and two cousins are stationed in Saudi Arabia. "I find myself thinking about body bags and caskets. These guys volunteered to serve their country, they didn't volunteer to get killed. This is extremely overwhelming. It's caused a lot of anger. It makes you cry."

Lorraine Friedman, a lawyer in the District, said the war has given her what she calls "the Saddam Hussein flu," anxiety so strong as to make her physically sick.

Several of the psychiatrists attending the forum at the headquarters of the Mental Health Association of D.C. said they believe the worst is yet to come.

"What happens if we find out that hundreds of thousands {of Iraqis} are being killed by our people with our weapons?" asked James G. Banks, president of the Mental Health Association of D.C., who advised mental health professionals to begin preparing to deal with the guilt that some people may feel.

The information the military is now giving out, said Justin Frank, president of the Washington School of Psychiatry, takes "the blood and guts out of what is going on."

The longer the war goes on, the more mental health casualties expected, both at home and on the battlefield.

In Vietnam, 15 percent of the veterans suffered serious "post-traumatic stress disorders," according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Some psychiatrists have said that they believe the fact that the soldiers must wear chemical warfare gear and worry constantly about poisonous gas attacks may increase the percentage of mental health casualties in this war.

"Some of my colleagues are having difficulty thinking about what these guys are going to look like when they come back, about how they would be disfigured," said Emory Perkins, a social worker at Bethesda Naval Hospital, which is on alert to deal with casualties.

Freda Lewis-Hall and other psychiatrists at the forum said those with war anxieties should talk about them with friends, join support groups, limit the amount of time they watch or read war-related news, try to resume normal routines and excercise. "We have people whose heart rates and blood pressure are going way up," Lewis-Hall said. "We are telling them that they may die before their loved ones in the gulf."