University of Southern California

Election 2012

In Brief

Recession’s Unseen Toll

September 17, 2010

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By Robert Gore

In these days of recessionary unemployment, many Americans are finding themselves facing not only the stress of unemployment itself, but secondary effects like depression, anxiety, vulnerability to substance abuse, strained relationships, and a loss of confidence. Studies have shown that the unemployed have twice as much depression as people with jobs and twice the risk of heart attack and stroke. Roughly one in six laid-off Americans is likely to become clinically depressed as a direct result; another sixth experience depression for other reasons. So the rate of depression among the unemployed is about one in three.

As periods of unemployment stretch from months to years, one can expect problems to be compounded.

In addition to the short-term effects, lengthy unemployment is shown to have health effects decades later. One study found that people who were laid off in middle age had higher mortality into their 60s. Although the difference in death rates was not large — and the people in question had mostly returned to the world of work — the study illustrates the long-term effects of severe stress.

On a positive note, psychological and medical research offers new sources of hope. Stress achieves many of its negative effects through a stress hormone called cortisol, which is toxic to the brain. Recent research suggests that antidepressant therapy may reduce the risk of brain damage. Studies have found evidence that treatment with a class of antidepressants known as SSRIs can protect hippocampal cells from loss of dendritic branching, a measure of neuronal health. Furthermore, antidepressant therapy seems to promote neural growth hormones that facilitate the regeneration of neurons. Physical exercise can have the same effect.

Psychological research has shown that cognitive attributions also make a difference. People who frame the unemployment experience in a less negative way, and who cope by actively working on solving unemployment-related problems and by not taking the unemployment personally, are more resilient in the face of unemployment stress.

As news stories reveal how unemployment continues to strike at the hopes and dreams of so many, it’s important for us all to realize the importance of providing the unemployed with moral support, helping them not personalize their experience, and — as a society — providing them with medical and mental health benefits during their period of unemployment.

Robert Gore, assistant professor of psychology at the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is an expert on mental health and psychotherapy.

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