Unemployment long has been considered a mental health stressor, but rarely has there been a time when the job market has faced such a sudden and widespread upheaval as during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Suddenly, more and more people are seeking counseling and assistance tied to unemployment from professionals such as Ann-Marie Sands, an 18-year clinical social worker focusing on mental health at Clarity Clinic NWI in Munster.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of a discussion with Sands.
Q: How does a person’s employment situation affect his or her mental health?
A: When we look at a person who has had long-term employment very much tied to their identity, losing that job can lead to a loss of self-esteem, as well as feelings of financial insecurity about being able to provide for their family or meet their basic needs. Their anxiety also tends to increase because they fear for the future, and they often experience depression because they blame themselves for the situation and begin to doubt their own self-worth.
In some cases, we see an increase in suicidal thoughts associated with long-term unemployment, especially if the individual has multiple stressors in their life, such as financial hardships or family problems, at the time of the job loss. Taking away that last piece of self-esteem amid other ongoing issues can just be devastating for some people.
Q: How does employment compare to some other common mental health stressors?
A: Unemployment can be a major mental health stressor, starting with that fight-or-flight defense of trying to secure one’s basic needs such as food and shelter. Looking further out, it can cause a person to question their hopes and dreams — things such as being able to retire comfortably or pay for their children’s education.
Think about how much time people spend thinking about their jobs and spending time with their coworkers and feeling a sense of community among the people they work with. When all of that suddenly gets taken away, it can be a major disruption to who they and the general routine for how they move through life. This can lead to things such as poor coping skills and relationship problems and substance abuse.
Q: Have you seen an uptick in people seeking mental health counseling related to unemployment because of the pandemic?
A: Starting in April of 2020, we did start to see more people seeking out service as the unemployment rate really began to climb. Unfortunately, we also saw some people drop off because they lost their benefits during that time.
But our mental health practitioners continue to be in very high demand, and while we’re trying to help people cope with their stressors, we’re also trying to direct them to some of the resources related to employment assistance that may be out there. That’s kind of a new part of what we’re doing now — trying to connect people to some of those social services that are available to them.
Q: What are some resources or ideas for people facing long-term unemployment?
A: Some people want to fight the idea of unemployment in their mind and go through how they lost their job. But part of getting through this is to accept that it happened and to try and look forward instead of looking back. And it’s important to remember that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s a very strange time for everyone. So it doesn’t really make sense to blame yourself for losing a job.
But in terms of re-establishing a sense of self-worth, people need to remember who they are and what they’re good at and what they really care about. They also need to remember to take it easy on themselves. For all the time you need to spend on the computer researching and applying for jobs, it’s important to take breaks and relax and continue to do some of the things you enjoy.
It’s also important to stay informed. There are a lot of programs to help people get through this time — from employment assistance to rent assistance to food banks — and we really try to encourage people to seek those out. One great resource that I want to mention is the North Township Trustee. It's been able to help walk people through a lot of the services that are out there. (The North Township Trustee serves East Chicago, Hammond, Highland, Munster and Whiting. www.northtownshiptrustee.com)