More unemployed people struggle with depression

Roxanne Lange
Roxanne Lange at the Peter Hobart elementary school in St. Louis Park, where she volunteers and helps teach first-graders how to read. She says volunteering has helped her combat the depression brought on by her unemployment.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

Unemployment can be crippling not only financially but also psychologically, and with the recession putting millions of people out of work nationwide, more and more unemployed folks are struggling with serious cases of depression.

Back in September 2007, before the recession started, Roxanne Lange decided to quit her job. After 30 years as an interior designer, she felt she had to step back from her 60-hour workweeks to take care of her seriously-ill mom and mother-in-law.

Lange figured she would be able to return to work in a few months, but her old company was sold. She didn't have an option to return there, and then the economy tanked. Lange has applied for more than 50 jobs she felt she was qualified for and has had only three interviews and no job offers.

"I started feeling I wasn't to be able to get a job again, no matter what it was," Lange said. "So, the depression aspect really took over."

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Lange has worked since she was 15 years old. But now, at age 59, she's wondering if she'll ever land another paying job, even though she's sought positions that pay a third of what she once earned. Unemployment has exacerbated her struggles with depression.

"You feel you're not of value of any more," she said.

That's how many unemployed people feel. Without a job, they feel worthless.

"People who are unemployed are four times more likely to say that they have thought about harming themselves than people have full-time employment," said David Shern, president of Mental Health America. "These are very serious matters that can be lethal if they are not dealt with appropriately."

Shern's organization and the National Alliance on Mental Illness recently surveyed unemployed adults to gauge the mental health challenges facing them.

Compared to people with full-time jobs, the survey found the unemployed are twice as likely to report concerns about their mental health or their use of alcohol or drugs.

Karen Lloyd, senior director for behavioral health with HealthPartners, said unemployed people often wind up blaming themselves for situations that may be beyond their control.

"People going through these situations are dealing with a real complex of emotions: grief and anger and sadness, all at the same time," Lloyd said. "And they keep saying things like, 'We did everything right. We were good workers and hard workers.'"

It's critical for unemployed people to seek whatever help they can get if they're feeling depressed. Shern of Mental Health America said even just talking with someone can make a big difference.

"Talking to a friend, talking to a pastoral counselor or spiritual advisor ... many people find that helpful," he said. "Clearly, talking to a doctor or mental health professional, if people can afford that, would be recommended as well."

Some people who are out of work still have health insurance and mental health services through a spouse or other means. That's the case with Roxanne Lange. She has coverage through her husband, who's still employed. But many of the unemployed lose their health insurance when they lose their jobs.

Among unemployed people who had not spoken to a health professional about depression concerns, 42 percent cite cost or lack of insurance coverage as the main reason. That's according to the survey by Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Patricia Drury, a health coach at Medica, said it's important for the unemployed to find things that give them joy, that lift their spirits and connect them with people.

Drury said it's also important they redefine who they are. She said volunteer work can help the unemployed find out who they really are.

"Some people really identify with their job," Drury said. "And when they lose it there's a sense in which they don't know who they are until they start to get more grounded, get reconnected to their family, reconnected to their community or start to define themselves as something other than what they did for a paycheck."

Roxanne Lange said counseling, gardening and reorganizing her home have helped her feel better about her situation. But her biggest boost has come from volunteering.

Lange volunteers two days a week at the St. Joseph's Home for Children. Seeing the effects of parental neglect on children, she's become passionate about child advocacy.

She also spends two mornings a week teaching first-graders to read at the Peter Hobart elementary school St. Louis Park.

"Those wonderful little ones, with a variety of issues and concerns and whatever else, they gave more to me than I could ever have given to them," she said.

Lange has been doing some freelance interior design work, too. She said friends and associates have noticed more of a spark in her. For now, working for free to make things better for children is Lange's job. And she said that's really helping keep unemployment from sapping her spirits.