Joblessness and your health


Illustration by Rick Holland
Illustration by Rick Holland

For so many, losing a job can mean losing everything: family, finances, health, home and sanity.

According to Andrew O’Grady, executive director of Mental Health America of Dutchess County, there are, in the event of job loss, factors which predict worsening mental health and factors that predict the opposite.

“If someone defines their lives by their job, and then you lose that job, then you lose who are you when you lose that job and that’s a predictor of worsening mental health,” said O’Grady. “If family members criticize … for being jobless, or insinuate that your performance was an impacting reason for your unemployment, would also make it negative.”

O’Grady said that it’s common that when money gets tight, relationships begin to deteriorate and that causes more stress and depression. Therefore, the family structure, and how well supported the person is within it, is also an important predictor.

But, O’Grady said that not everyone who loses their job goes to Hades in a hand basket. He said it’s about what and how we spend our time, such as having routines and enjoyable activities to replace the job. O’Grady also pointed out that sometimes untreated mental health issues may have been an underlying cause for losing the job.

“There are physical symptoms for depression: headaches, back pain, difficulty sleeping, weight loss or gain, sleeping too much, physical pain,” said O’Grady. “That all happens.”

No money, fading health

For many, losing a job is a fast track to faltering health. Poughkeepsie-based oncology Nurse Practitioner Chris Egan said she notices that when someone loses their job a cancer diagnosis is quick to follow. Why? Egan’s personal opinion was that it’s about defenses; when a person takes a blow, such as sudden unemployment, their immune system begins to unravel with them.

William Bell of Middlehope has Crohn’s Disease, a chronic autoimmune condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the digestive system creating painful bouts of stomach pains, exhaustion, malnutrition and bleeding. In early May, Bell was told his job would be terminated as part of a corporate reorganization. “Initially I was devastated, I loved the job and the people I worked with, but eventually I started to think perhaps a new job, higher salary, closer commute could be a good thing — I was wrong,” said Bell.

As the summer progressed, Bell’s headhunters and recruiters at all the major agencies were turning up nothing, some explaining the job market was on hold until after Labor Day, not to worry, it would pick up. “As I began to worry about money, my health started deteriorating … My symptoms worsened as I began to get depressed about the unfortunate turn of events in my life. The symptoms became regular, daily, and more severe.”

Beyond down in the dumps

[wide]depression[/wide]“That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.

— Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation


This is not just a depressing topic, but a painful one for me to write about because it’s something I’ve known a bit too up close and personally, with immediate family members affected and in turn affecting me. Luckily my own depressive episodes take the form of the occasionally brief bouts typical of most people: just feeling sad for a while, with exercise or distraction serving as quick effective fixes. But I’ve seen what havoc depression can wreak in a life.

Depression may be no picnic for beleaguered family members and friends, but is a living hell for the sufferer. Millions of us have depression in some form. The exact number is hard to count because so many cases are undiagnosed and untreated. In part, because it’s a disease complicated by its attached stigma. “Just pull out of it” or “Snap out of it,” people tell the depressed, failing to understand why they can’t just give themselves a little shake and a pep talk and feel all better.

Many more women have clinical depression than men, possibly because of hormonal or psychosocial reasons. In women it may manifest as guilt, melancholy and feelings of worthlessness, while in men it can look like fatigue, insomnia, apathy and irritability, even anger. There are no racial differences, but more urban dwellers have it than rural.