Phil Phillips is a social worker on the recession's front lines at a clinic near Detroit. He sees an aspect of unemployment not measured in monthly reports by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last month, a 32-year-old auto worker who had recently been laid off stuck a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. "He blew away part of his jaw and one ear, but he lived," Phillips said. "He's still in the hospital, and I don't know what's going to happen to him now."
Last week, a steelworker drank five quarts of wine in one day. "Married 15 years and has three kids. He was laid off permanently last year. His wife has filed for divorce," Phillips said. "He has been trying to kill himself with drinking."
On New Year's Eve, a worker laid off from Cadillac's Fleetwood plant flew into a drunken rage, beat his wife with his fists and tried to choke her. Married for 20 years, five children. The oldest son, 17, was hospitalized for depression. The wife, Phillips said, is trying to work up the courage to leave.
Many people, of course, manage to cope with idle hours, loss of identity, the guilt, the fears and still keep their health, sanity and families. And most specialists are careful to note that loss of a job alone is unlikely to cause someone to plunge into abnormality.
Still, a spate of studies over the last decade has begun to document a link between rising joblessness and various forms of sickness and violence. In areas hit hard by the recession, alcoholism, child abuse, wife beating, suicide and mental illness are reported to be increasing.
The most widely circulated work on that relationship comes from Dr. M. Harvey Brenner, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. He reported in 1976 that for each 1 percentage-point rise in unemployment, there would occur 4.1 percent more suicides over a six-year period, 2.3 percent more admissions to mental hospitals for women and 4.3 percent more for men, 5.7 percent more murders and 1.9 percent more deaths from heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver and stress-related disorders.
Brenner and other specialists warn that the effects this time may be dramatically more severe, not only because the recession is longer and deeper but also because federal funds for social services are being cut. Patients are overwhelming capacity, being "packed in, sitting on the floor." Meanwhile, increasing numbers of the jobless are exhausting unemployment benefits and their ability to pay for treatment.
Brenner is updating and expanding his studies for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and, he said last week, "I think we'll come to the conclusion the earlier report was conservative."
In addition to the side effects of unemployment (unemployed refers to those still trying to find jobs), the study will show additional impact caused by people being forced completely out of the labor force and by increases in bankruptcies, he said.
Alcoholism is the most pervasive in the litany of problems aggravated by joblessness, specialists say. In a dark parody of macho television beer commercials, masses of unemployed blue-collar workers now find that they have "got the time."
"These guys are used to living high off the hog, being able to afford everything," said Joe Pavesich of Ypsilanti, Mich., a recovering alcoholic laid off as a cutter-grinder for General Motors.
"In hard times, it's a lot more depressing. You got to decide between your children and your addiction. And some people just can't make that choice . . . . They'll start borrowing, stealing, begging, running tabs at the local bars, anything."
Pavesich works as a volunteer at the local United Auto Workers unemployed workers assistance committee because, he said, "I knew I had to get into something to keep busy. I could sit in a bar for eight or nine hours easy."
He recalled an electrician who stumbled into the union hall recently, "drunk, pushy and obnoxious," his money gone for bar tabs, demanding food, shoes and mittens for his wife and three children. He was an exception to the rule because, Pavesich said, "We were able to turn him around."
Like a reverse assembly line, it seems, hard times are loosening the bolts in some longstanding family relationships. Problems that could be ignored or managed in the landscape of a routine work life, specialists say, now intensify and are no longer forgiven by those affected.
"I couldn't say that losing his job was the cause, but I think it put the icing on it," said Cheryl Merrell of Kokomo, Ind., whose husband drove his pickup truck into his garage, locked the doors and turned on the engine just before Christmas a year ago. He was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. A note he left, found by his oldest daughter, said, "I couldn't take it anymore. There's nothing to live for."
His 12-year marriage had been rocky, and Marty Merrell "had a terrible drinking problem," she said. It had worsened during a long period when he was working two weeks, then laid off for two weeks, called back for two weeks, laid off for two weeks as a grinder in the Chrysler transmission plant, his wife said. "That tears you apart. You can't live like that," she said.
He was on indefinite layoff when he killed himself. He had been answering advertisements for jobs on overseas oil rigs, his wife recalled. "I think he panicked," about losing the house, about not having any money, she said. "I think he felt the job was the only thing he had left to hold him here."
Thomas Birch of the National Child Abuse Coalition said, "I have never seen the kind of alarm over increases in child abuse that I'm seeing now." An informal NCAC survey last year showed a sharp increase in child abuse cases in some areas of high joblessness.
In Oregon, for example, the number of such cases rose 46 percent in one year and have been "consistently hitting new monthly highs," he said. In South Carolina, deaths of abused children increased sharply. In Michigan, the increase was a less dramatic 9 percent, but the cases came disproportionately from counties where jobs depend on the struggling auto industry.
In an example from another study reported recently in The Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin counties with sizable increases in joblessness from 1979 through 1981 reported a 69 percent rise in abuse cases, compared with a 12 percent rise in counties with lower unemployment rates.
The ripple effect of adversity can take varied forms. A hospital serving a poor section of Chicago, for example, reported a sudden increase in infant water intoxication, caused by overdilution of infant formula by parents trying to stretch the food. The symptoms are high blood pressure and seizures.
In a Family Service Association survey, 74 percent of centers responding nationwide reported increased family violence, and more than half blamed it totally or in part on unemployment and general economic conditions.
In Peoria, Ill., as unemployment reached 15.9 percent, the number of women seeking aid at a shelter for battered women nearly doubled in two months, according to the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Statistics do not tell the whole story. Some specialists say they never see many of those in trouble who, middle class and accustomed to being self-reliant, cannot bring themselves to seek certain types of help.
"Unfortunately, so many of these people feel that coming to a mental health center is just another failure," said Joan Wist, director of the Irene Stacey center in the steel town of Butler, Pa. Even so, she said, as many as one-third more people per month than ever are coming for help.
Judson Stone, a social worker in Elk Grove, Ill., who spent a decade studying the unemployed in Detroit, tells of a young couple who provide a typical example of the "passage" to despair and sometimes violence. An auto industry tool-and-die man and his wife, an office worker, proud of their accomplishments and their status, were laid off within a few weeks of each other. They had two preschool children and no savings.
Unable to grasp what was happening to them, they looked for work only sporadically, each assuming the other would find something. They let things go too long. Eventually they exhausted unemployment benefits, lost their home and were forced to turn to domineering, reproachful parents for help, moving into a trailer owned by the wife's father.
Sinking into depression, they stopped making love, stopped communicating, watched a lot of television. They lost the primary means of job-hunting--their phone, their newspaper subscription and, because their only car was a gas guzzler, their ability to travel very far. The wife found herself a boyfriend who would sympathize with her.
Finally, the couple found themselves taking out their frustrations on their 2-year-old daughter, violently slapping and pushing her around. Horrified, they sought help at Stone's clinic.
"Their story illustrates the horrible, horrible feeling of lack of control over your own life that so many people are feeling," Stone said. "It's like a maelstrom. You go down, down, down . . . ."
By this time, like so many, Stone said, this couple "looked 'down,' they dressed 'down,' they didn't look terribly employable. They were at the bottom. We tried to set up little goals that gave them a sense of control. We charged them a dollar for our publicly funded services, which may sound trifling, but it's important . . . .
"The husband started to do carpentry work for his father-in-law so that the help he received wasn't strictly charity. He finally got a part-time job towing cars. The wife dropped her boyfriend. They both started reaching out again to old friends they had dropped . . . ."
If hard times break people and families, they also force people together in new ways. For example, many unemployed people such as Joe Pavesich in Ypsilanti have found therapy for themselves in helping others.
"It's very painful. But in many ways it's a turning back to needing one another," said Jack Donahue, a Steelworkers official who works with the union's drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. "It's very moving."
"If it weren"t for my volunteer work, I'd be in a mental home right now," said Diane Morrison, an assembly-line worker laid off from Chrysler's Ypsilanti plant. Her husband, a painter, is also out of work. She spends her days working with the UAW assistance committee and telling other jobless people in trouble where they can get help, advising them of their legal rights to medical care, seeing that they get food.
"Instead of sitting home saying 'poor me,' you're here saying 'poor them.' Some of these poor people don't have anybody. It makes me feel good when I go home at night, and I've helped five or six people," she said.