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Long-Term Unemployment Can Tax Mental Health

WEDNESDAY Oct. 19, 2011 -- Americans who were jobless for longer than 25 weeks in the past year were three times more likely than those who were continuously employed to suffer mental health issues for the first time, a new study finds.

Being jobless also has a greater psychological impact on people with more than a high school education than on those with less education, the researchers found.

The study involved people who had never had clinically defined emotional health issues in their life or who had their first bout of problems in the most recent year.

"In looking at this group of resilient individuals, we compared the psychological health of those who were fully employed with those who were exposed to short-term unemployment or less than 25 weeks of involuntary joblessness, and with people who were exposed to long-term unemployment over the past year," Arthur Goldsmith, an economics professor at Washington and Lee University, said in a university news release.

The findings were scheduled for presentation Wednesday at a Congressional briefing on the emotional impact of unemployment sponsored by the American Psychological Association.

"The reason we focus on this group is that if you're 55 years old, and you've never had a bout of poor emotional well-being that would be described clinically in that way, and have your first bout in the past year when you are exposed to unemployment, it's very unlikely that your poor mental health led to the unemployment rather than your unemployment leading to the poor mental health. Thus, we are able to address the issue of causality that has plagued prior studies of the link between unemployment and mental health," Goldsmith explained.

He and his colleagues found that the risk of first-time mental health issues was about the same for people who were fully employed and those who experienced short-term unemployment.

"On the other hand, we found that people exposed to long-term unemployment were three times as likely as employed people over the past year to be exposed to their first bout of psychological distress in a clinically defined way," Goldsmith said.

Depression and general anxiety are the two primary causes of poor mental health related to long-term unemployment, the study found.

"When people are exposed to long-term unemployment, they obviously feel that they've lost control of their capacity to earn a living and take care of their families," Goldsmith said. "They worry about their futures."

The study also found that the psychological impact of unemployment tends to be greater among people in minority groups and those with higher levels of education.

For a person in a minority group, unemployment likely heightens their concerns about their ability to do well due to a history of job discrimination because of race and ethnicity.

"People with a lot of education tend to believe that they have control of events in their lives and are self-blamers. That is really damaging to emotional well-being," Goldsmith explained.

The research should be considered preliminary because it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

More information

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers tips for coping with unemployment.

Posted: October 2011


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