For many people, losing a job not only means the loss of income and benefits, but also the loss of one's identity.
A recession can exacerbate unemployment as more and more people experience downward mobility and income volatility. Job loss for people in the United States — a country where many people's work and self-worth are interchangeable — can be an extremely traumatic experience, often leading many to despair and depression.
The longer one experiences unemployment in the United States, the more likely they are to report symptoms of psychological unease, according to a recent Gallup poll. The poll also found that one in five Americans without a job for a year or more report that they have been or are currently undergoing treatment for depression. This is roughly double the rate of depression among those who have been without a job for fewer than five weeks.
According to research reported in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, unemployed people are twice as likely as employed people to suffer from psychological problems (34 percent to 16 percent). Blue-collar workers are more distressed by unemployment than those who've lost a white-collar job. Additionally, middle-aged men and women, especially those who are unemployed, experience the highest levels of psychological distress.
In some cases, the psychological distress of joblessness leads to suicide. According to a 2012 report by the Samaritans suicide prevention group, the suicide rate for middle-aged men is higher than that of any other demographic group. Risk of suicide also increases among those of lower socioeconomic status, according to the Samaritans report. The suicide rate among men of lower socioeconomic status was reported to be 10 times higher than that of affluent men.
The increasing mechanization of production and shift toward a service-oriented economy has put many working-class men, who have traditionally held specialized jobs in manufacturing, out of work. Men who are without work sometimes view themselves as expendable and often describe the loss of a job using terms such as "catastrophic" and "devastating."
Coping with Job Loss
It's perfectly normal for a person to grieve the loss of a job. It's important to remember, however, that a career is not an identity.
Separating one's self-worth from one's job is especially important in the United States, where employment volatility has been on the rise for more than three decades.
The stages of grief in the wake of a job loss are much the same as the model of key emotional reactions to the experience of the dying developed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. They include the stages of shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance and moving on.
It's particularly important for the recently unemployed to realize they are far from alone and to reach out for support from friends and family, a counselor or therapist, or a support group.
A Special Note About Stay-At-Home Dads
In the wake of a job loss, many men today find themselves in the position of being a stay-at-home dad while their wife becomes the "breadwinner" for the family. This reversal of traditional roles can be particularly difficult for some men.
A big part problem is social isolation. The best solution may be to connect with others. Joshua Coleman, co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families in Oakland, California, recommends joining, or starting, a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) support group. The National At-Home Dad Network can help you find SAHD groups near you.
Symptoms of Depression After a Job Loss
People who've recently lost a job are at special risk for developing major depressive disorder (MDD), a serious condition that requires treatment. According to the National Institutes of Health, each year about 6.7 percent of U.S. adults experience MDD, with the average age of onset being 32. Women are 70 percent more likely than men to go through depression.
It is difficult for those with MDD to imagine a positive way to overcome their employment woes. Symptoms of MDD include:
- feelings of worthlessness, self-hate, or guilt
- feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- fatigue or chronic lack of energy
- difficulty concentrating
- loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities such as a hobby or sex
- insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping)
- social isolation
- changes in appetite and corresponding weight gain or loss
- suicidal thoughts or behaviors
In the most severe cases, people may experience psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations.
If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until help arrives.
- Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
- Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Diagnosis and Treatment for MDD
A doctor or other licensed mental healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. Questionnaires are usually used to help determine the severity of the depression.
Treatments for MDD typically include antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), cognitive behavioral therapy, or both. More serious cases of depression may be successfully treated using electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). If psychosis is involved, anti-psychotic medications are typically prescribed. Even if psychosis is not present, sometimes your provider may prescribe antipsychotic drugs to make antidepressants work better.
There are also several no-cost or low-cost ways to help cope with depression. Some ideas include:
- establishing a daily routine to help you feel in control of your life
- setting reasonable goals to help motivate you
- writing in a journal to express your feelings constructively
- joining support groups to share your feelings and gain insight from others struggling with depression
- staying active to reduce stress and stay healthy
Anyone who experiences thoughts of suicide or harming others should immediately contact 911, go to a hospital emergency room, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.