Most people are reasonably resilient. And most of us try to put a positive spin on life. But the fact remains that long-term unemployment is taking a severe mental toll on many Americans. It’s one thing to withstand the short-term shock of an unexpected layoff. But the current downturn has thrown people out of work for periods of time not seen since the Great Depression. If present trends can continue, those recently laid off can expect, statistically, to be out of work for six months or more. And some have been looking for work for years.
But for those who have been out of work the longest, unemployment insurance benefits are beginning to run out. The result may be a reduction in the nominal unemployment rate – as these individuals disappear from the labor force, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates it. But the real human costs of unemployment – heretofore masked, in part by unemployment insurance benefits – are just now beginning to show themselves. Clinicians are reporting increases in mental health admissions already. Children are getting pulled out of private schools and sent to inferior public schools. Marriages are coming under increasing strain due to financial pressures. Men who had been working in male-dominated professions, such as construction, have been hit hardest – and are beginning to doubt themselves, especially as they cede more and more of their responsibilities as family breadwinners to women.
The result: Depression. Not the economic kind, which can be cured with a job, but the psychological kind. If left unchecked, this insidious disease can take hold of a once productive, faithful and diligent worker and sap him of hope, batter his dreams, and leave him a broken shell of his former self.
Left with the combination of too much time on their hands and persistent feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness from months of effort with no success in finding work, some workers turn to alcohol and drugs to drown their sorrows. Or they may simply become withdrawn and irritable – and pay the price in their relationships. Some may become emotionally or even physically abusive under the strain – or may themselves become victims of verbal or physical abuse. Research by Kerwin Charles and Melvin Stephens recently found an 18 percent increase in the probability of divorce following a husband’s job loss and 13 percent after a wife’s, according to a report from the New York Times.
Dr. Melanie Greenberg, writing for Psychology Today, identifies a number of factors that contribute to deteriorating mental health through a period of job loss:
• Work role centrality. Those who rely a great deal on their ability as providers and as professionals for their sense of self-worth. An extended period of unemployment is a blow to the emotional solar plexus of these people – and very difficult to overcome.
• Social undermining. “Unemployment-related psychological strain can be aggravated by criticism and negative judgements by one’s spouse, family members, friends & colleagues,” writes Greenberg.
• Financial strain. People for whom unemployment results in severe financial difficulties experience greater emotional stress than people who don’t need the income. (This is the kind of scintillating insight they award Ph.Ds for in the social sciences.)
• Stress appraisal. People who see unemployment as negative and stressful are likely to experience more negativity and stress than people who don’t. This is great stuff from Psychology Today!
Greenberg also lists three factors that predict better mental health through a period of unemployment:
• Positive core self-evaluation: One’s sense of oneself as worthy or unworthy, competent or incompetent, having failed or succeeded, writes Greenberg.
• Time structure. This one you can use. Those who have routines and projects to structure their time tend to fare better, psychologically, than those who don’t. If you stay busy, you have less time for negativity and brooding.
• Re-employment expectancy. Those with better re-employment expectations tend to do be less prone to becoming depressed while unemployed.
Sure, we’ve had some fun at Greenberg’s expense here. But the core points remain:
• Keep your routine going. Routine builds discipline. And Lord knows you need discipline to have a good chance of finding re-employment in today’s job market.
• Stay fit. Get exercise and eat healthy. This is good for mental health for its own sake. It’s also good for your employment and future earnings prospects.
• Keep your distance from negative people. You already know you’re out of work. You don’t need nagging or judgmental people reminding you of the fact. You may need to be forthright and direct in asking for your spouse’s support.
• Spend time with focused, successful people. This can be difficult. But they will be able to point you toward more opportunities than people who are both out of work and spending their time wallowing in their sorrow. It’s not easy. But you don’t want to be one of these people. Surround yourself with people who are where you want to be in their careers and in their lives.
• If you need immediate help, don’t hesitate to get it. Depression is an illness, like any other – and it’s not your fault. If you feel like the pressure is too much to bear, and you begin feeling like there’s no point in going on, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
• Remember that depression often responds very well to modern treatment – if you seek it out. Don’t try to beat depression on your own. Help is out there.
Good luck, and thanks for reading! See you again soon, here on the Vitaver blog!