A Hidden Epidemic of Emotional Problems

Economists like to think about the average U.S. citizen who studies the market, has 2.3 children, earns $28,000, and is married 1.9 times.  A recent poll by The New York Times adds some statistics to this construct in an age of unemployment. (See, “Poll Reveals the Trauma of Joblessness.”)

“More than half of the nation’s unemployed workers have borrowed money from friends or relatives since losing their jobs. An equal number have cut back on doctor visits or medical treatments because they are out of work. A quarter of those polled said they had either lost their home or been threatened with foreclosure or eviction.”

The poll also put some flesh and blood — and emotional consequences – to these facts, exploring the psychological impact of unemployment. “Almost half said they had more conflicts or arguments with family members and friends; 55 percent have suffered from insomnia. Almost half have suffered from depression or anxiety.  Forty percent of parents have noticed behavioral changes in their children that they attribute to their difficulties in finding work.”

One mother reported: “Every time I think about money, I shut down because there is none . . . . I get major panic attacks. I just don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Nearly half of the adults surveyed admitted to feeling embarrassed or ashamed as a result of being out of work. Not surprisingly, given men’s traditional roll of breadwinner, they were significantly more likely than women to report feeling ashamed most of the time.

Nearly half of those polled said they felt in danger of falling out of their social class, with those out of work six months or more feeling especially vulnerable. Working-class respondents felt at risk in the greatest numbers. (See my December 12th posting, “Middle Class America?”)

Those still employed have not escaped the toll. “According to a New York Times/CBS News nationwide poll conducted at the same time as the poll of unemployed adults, about 3 in 10 people said that in the past year, as a result of bad economic conditions, their pay had been cut.”

What we don’t know we know about unemployment are the emotional costs hidden behind the statistics.  The anxiety, depression, anger, shame and dread that afflicts those who have lost their jobs, or even a significant portion of their income.

And as it seems unlikely that the picture will change significantly for a long time.  Newsweek predicted this week that “U.S. unemployment is likely to remain high for years to come, as much as 7 or 8 percent even into 2014.” And it cited George Soros:  “The average American will not be better off in five years—unemployment will remain high and wage growth will continue to be flat.”  (See, “Joblessness is Here to Stay.”)

We are likely to have statistics on that, however imperfectly they reflect the true facts.  But we are seriously at risk of neglecting the epidemic of mental health problems that will accompany those facts.