“You’re 45, 50 years old, you’ve worked hard for the past 25 years, and all of the sudden you’re on the street, or your friends disappear like unemployment is a disease they can catch,” said Sarfati, the executive director of 40Plus of Greater Washington, an organization that brings together unemployed middle-aged professionals for job training, resume building and much needed moral support. “As this thing gets more drawn out, we see more and more people fall into a deep funk or dark place.”
As President Obama and Republican leaders argue over the best way to reduce 9.1 percent unemployment and revive a near-flatlining economy, less attention has been paid to the widespread emotional and psychological damage caused by long-term unemployment — and the drain it has on government resources and workforce productivity.
With an estimated three-quarters of the 14 million unemployed Americans out of work for more than six months and fully half out of work for more than two years, many jobless Americans are falling into despair as repeated attempts to find work come up short.
When people lose their jobs, they often are optimistic as they embark on a search for a new one, according to Ronald Kessler, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School and an expert on psychiatric disorders and data. “But after a while they get worn down and discouraged, and that’s when you start to see the mental health problems. And for the U.S., that time is now.”
A recently released, comprehensive study of the long-term unemployed by Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development found that 32 percent were experiencing a good deal of stress and another 47 percent said they had some stress associated with their joblessness. Moreover, at least 11 percent reported seeking professional help for depression in the past year.
One in two of the respondents in the two-year national study said they have avoided friends and associates, largely out of a sense of shame and embarrassment — a self-imposed isolation that hurt their ability to network to find employment.
Many of these unemployed Americans cannot afford to seek professional help because they lost their employer-provided health insurance with their jobs. At the same time, federal, state and local governments have cut back on spending for mental health clinics and outreach in response to budget crises spawned by the bad economy.
It could get even worse if Medicaid funding of mental health services is put on the chopping block later this fall, as a congressional “supercommittee” hunts for spending cuts to help reduce the federal budget deficit. Medicaid is the main source of funding of public mental health services for young people and adults, accounting for nearly half of state mental health budgets, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.