“Your whole life your job defines who you are,” Yundra Thomas told The New York Times two summers ago. “All of the sudden that’s gone, and you don’t know what to take pride in anymore.”
Unemployment is commonly understood as an economic problem, and inquiries into its nature tend to come from that perspective. Why do people struggle to find work even when jobs are available? What are the job prospects for those who have been unemployed for a long time? What policies, if anything, can Washington enact to help?
But, as Thomas is saying, unemployment often exacts a toll that goes beyond economic concerns to psychological ones. Humans, after all, are not robots, and the loss of a job is not merely the loss of a paycheck but the loss of a routine, security, and connection to other people.
A new poll from Gallup attempts to gauge the consequences of those losses and finds that "unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely as those with full-time jobs to say they currently have or are being treated for depression—12.4 percent vs. 5.6 percent, respectively." Moreover, for those who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more (the "long-term unemployed," currently numbering 3.4 million people), the depression rate is 18 percent, nearly one in five.
Steve Crabtree, who wrote up Gallup's results, emphasizes that "the causal direction of the relationship ... is not clear from Gallup's data. It is possible that unemployment causes poor health conditions such as depression, or it could be that having such conditions makes it harder to land a job."