Scourge of Long-Term Unemployment Hinders Mental Health

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Long-term unemployment has long-term effects. Image by Alvimann.

Long-term unemployment has long-term effects. Image by Alvimann.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its latest numbers. As of March 2014, 6.7% of Americans were unemployed – these people were not working, but were still actively looking for jobs.

The long-term unemployment rates, released at the end of December 2013, were lower, but still grim: 1.4% of the population had been unemployed for longer than a year, and .8% had been unemployed for two years or more.

What’s more, the long-term unemployed are unlikely to land the jobs that will get them back on track, according to a Brookings Institute report. Employers tend to ignore job applications from people who have been out of work for six months or longer, instead making greater efforts to recruit those who are short-term unemployed.

Additionally, when the unemployed do return to work, the jobs they find tend to be transitory, according to a recent congressional report. These individuals often find themselves re-unemployed within fifteen months of having found work. Furthermore, the jobs they find usually pay less than the jobs they had originally left.

Unemployment: All in the Family

On April 9th, 2014, the Senate approved a bill extending long-term unemployment benefits for five months. That certainly brings a measure of relief to its recipients, but does not necessarily stem the deleterious effects of not working.

In 2013, the Urban Institute published a report about the consequences of long-term unemployment. When people are out of work for six months or more, they, their families and their communities suffer. For one, their mortality rates rise, either due to stress, or possibly due to the loss of health insurance. For another, their children tend to perform poorly in the academic arena, particularly when their fathers are unemployed. Furthermore, job loss and economic distress have been shown to negatively affect the way in which mothers interact with their children; their adolescent children are likely to show symptoms of depression.

On a communal level, a trend of long-term unemployment within a neighborhood, often linked to the unavailability of local jobs, creates a string of negative consequences. Families fall apart, crime rates rise, and persistent poverty becomes embedded. Illegal means of employment often become a way of life in neighborhoods with poor job opportunities.

Mental Health Effects Debatable

The mental health effects of unemployment are less clear cut, according to the Urban Institute report. Although it would seem logical that long-term unemployment leads to long-term depression, the research suggests otherwise. The initial job loss certainly creates anxiety and mood problems, but people do not necessarily become more depressed as their weeks of unemployment accrue. In fact, many seem to adjust to their new reality, and use their free time for healthful activities, such as exercise.

A comprehensive study from Rutgers University, published in 2011, provides a less rosy picture. The study found that the vast majority of unemployed people reported stress in their relationships with family and friends, with at least half of the respondents admitting to socially isolating themselves due to embarrassment about their situations.

Mind the (Gender) Gap

The American Psychological Association explains that some groups seem more deeply affected by unemployment than others. Again, the findings overturn conventional wisdom: women seem to be more emotionally affected than men, although society might consider working a “male” role.

Several studies point to the increased emotional consequences on women. Unemployed women self-report lower satisfaction with their lives, and worse mental health states, than unemployed men. They also self-report stress symptoms that manifest in a physical way, such as fatigue, low energy, anger and irritability. Physically, their health also suffers: Unemployed women are more likely than unemployed men to soothe their stress by eating junk food or skip a meal due to stress.

Future For Unemployed

What will the future bring to people who have been unemployed for at least six months? The congressional report presents two options. One is that as the economy expands, new jobs will be created, granting work opportunities to many who want them. The other, less happy, ending is that the trend of slow growth in job openings will continue. Despite the talk of economic expansion, the number of job openings continues to be lower than the monthly levels before the Great Recession.

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