Long-term unemployment wreaks mental toll on jobless

WASHINGTON — Lisa Banks feels hopeless. She's lost an essential part of her identity: Her status as a proud full-time employee is gone.

Ever since the 44-year-old Germantown, Md., resident was laid off from her job as an administrator for a federal contractor in May 2009, she's sent out hundreds of resumes, but only had four interviews. She says she's depressed enough to try to seek out psychological help. But no luck there either: She doesn't have insurance to pay for it.

"I've worked all my life. I've been a decent person," she said. "(But now) I feel as if I'm invisible. Like I'm not worth anything to society anymore."

The one consolation she can take is that she's not alone. Statistics show that 14 million unemployed Americans still suffer the effects of the recession. Of the jobless, more than 44 percent have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, a time frame the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers long-term.

The average unemployed American has been out of a job for a record 40.4 weeks, a figure that's grown steadily in the past three and a half years — from 17.5 weeks in January 2008.

As Americans such as Banks struggle to find jobs, long-term unemployment is wreaking a psychological toll across the United States, with experts and a number of studies saying the jobless are especially at risk of depression, increased anxiety and physical ailments.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group, said in a March report that a cumulative $1.8 billion from mental health services was cut in 32 states and the District of Columbia from 2008 to 2010.

"As a result, we've seen increasing burdens on other systems that are left to respond to people in crisis, like emergency rooms, like law enforcement and jails and prisons and homeless shelters," said Ron Honberg, the group's director of policy and legal affairs.

"Really the impact has been very negative. We're talking about extremely vulnerable people," he added.

He said states hadn't made it easy for people, especially low-income residents, to find easy access to information about their mental health services, which he called "so fragmented" and "incredibly difficult to understand, let alone navigate."

"Lots and lots of people with serious mental health illnesses fall through the cracks. and we see the evidence around us all the time," Honberg said.

Officials in the federal government who handle mental health issues echo his group's concerns. They saw the psychological effects of the economy begin to pick up in December 2007.

Katherine Power, the director of the Center for Mental Health Services at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that around a third of the 62,000 monthly calls to the 143 suicide-prevention telephone call centers that her agency supports around the United States were related to economic distress.

Calls about financial anxiety to those centers have increased around 5 percent to 10 percent annually in the past three years. She also said she was concerned about the negative ramifications of state budget cuts for mental health services.

"It's very significant in terms of state revenues not being available to fund services, and at the same time the need for services is clearly evident," Power said.

Congress has extended unemployment benefits repeatedly in recent years, up to 99 weeks, though further extensions aren't likely as lawmakers wrestle with huge budget deficits.

Experts on the psychology of unemployment said America was falling short on addressing the issues raised by those out of work. Experts also warn that if the United States ignores the issue, the country will pay a price in the future with increased costs for mental health coverage.

"When you have 14 million people who are unemployed and you extrapolate those figures going forward to the future, we're going to have a lot of health problems, a lot of psychological health problems to cope with," said Bob Leahy, a psychologist and the head of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York.

Jerald Jellison, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, said that when people lost their jobs, they tended to withdraw from society, shy away from seeing friends and stay holed up at home.

"Even when you meet old friends, they're probably going to be asking you, 'Have you found a job yet'? And even if they've learned not to ask you that, you know that's what's on their mind," he said.

"And so rather than face that embarrassment and awkwardness, that's one of the other forces that drives people to withdraw and not participate in social activities," he added.

But that behavior is usually self-defeating, because often the best way to get back into full-time work is by reaching out to friends and contacts to scope out promising leads.

A further complication for many unemployed people is that the longer they haven't been earning paychecks, the harder it becomes to find work, as employers often look down on people who don't currently hold jobs.

"Employers really do favor people who have jobs," said economist Sophia Koropeckyj, a managing director for Moody's Analytics.

Mitchell Hirsch, the online campaigns coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for lower-income workers, denounced that practice and said "employers are literally discriminating against people who don't have jobs."

The inability to find work doesn't just hurt those out of a job. It also affects everyone else, because it hobbles the economy and crimps consumer spending, Koropeckyj said.

"The more unemployed people there are, that means that's a weight for the whole economy because they are not spending as much," she said.

Meanwhile, unemployed Germantown resident Lisa Banks has exhausted her unemployment benefits. Her car has been repossessed, so she can't even drive to the grocery and store or take her 19 year-old daughter to college this fall.

Banks, who lives alone, said her relationship with her two kids had suffered because of her job status. She spent the first six months after she lost her job applying for new ones and trying to kill time, primarily by walking her dog and reading. She then took out school loans and now also takes online classes to get a business administration degree in hopes of restarting her career after she graduates.

But it's still tough out there for her.

Fighting back tears, she said, "All I try to do is try to keep my head up, and every day it's harder and harder because nothing seems to be getting done about this situation. Nothing."


U.S. Department of Labor

National Employment Law Project

National Alliance on Mental Illness


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