Depression After a Job Loss: How to Cope

For many people, losing a job not only means the loss of income and benefits, but also the loss of one’s identity.

A recession can exacerbate unemployment as more and more people suffer from downward mobility and income volatility. Job loss for people in the United States—where many people’s work and self-worth are interchangeable—can be an extremely traumatic experience, often leading many to despair and depression.

As income falls—as in the case of job loss, , rates of depression increase, according to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Community Psychology.

Losing a job can prove especially traumatic for men, who tend to identify more with their careers than do women. The suicide rate among unemployed men is twice that of men who are working.

The risk of suicide increases with age as well. Men who are without work sometimes view themselves as expendable and often describe the loss of a job using terms such as “catastrophic” and “devastating.”

Unemployed people are twice as likely as employed people to suffer from psychological problems (34 percent to 16 percent), and blue-collar workers are more distressed by unemployment than those who’ve lost a white-collar job.

Low income workers, too, are more likely to suffer from the effects of income volatility than are higher wage earners. Income volatility itself appears to be increasing as employers in the U.S. and elsewhere continue to shift economic risk from themselves to their employees. What that means is that it’s likely the psychological problems associated with unemployment and under-employment will continue in the foreseeable future.

Coping With Job Loss
It’s perfectly normal for a person to grieve the loss of a job. It’s important to remember, however, that a career is not an identity.

Separating one’s self-worth from one’s job is especially important in the United States, where employment volatility has been on the rise for more than three decades.

For instance, in the U.S. in 2008 (the last year for which numbers are available), barely ten percent of workers had worked at their current jobs for two decades or more while nearly a quarter had been with their current employer for less than a year. The stages of grief in the wake of a job loss are much the same as the Kübler-Ross model for death and dying. They include the stages of shock, fear or panic, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and, finally, moving on.

It’s particularly important for the recently unemployed to realize they are far from alone and to reach out for support from friends and family, a counselor or therapist, or a support group.

A Special Note About Stay-At-Home Dads
In the wake of a job loss, many men today find themselves in the position of being a stay-at-home dad while their wife becomes the “breadwinner” for the family. This reversal of traditional roles can be particularly difficult for certain men.

A big part problem is social isolation. Again, perhaps the best solution is to connect with others. Joshua Coleman, co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families in Oakland, California, recommends joining—or starting—a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) support group.

Symptoms of Depression After a Job Loss
People who’ve recently lost a job are at special risk for developing major depressive disorder (MDD), a serious condition that requires treatment. It is difficult for those with MDD to imagine a positive way to overcome their employment woes. Symptoms of MDD include:

  • feelings of worthlessness, self-hate or guilt
  • feelings of helplessness and/or hopelessness
  • fatigue or chronic lack of energy
  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities such as a hobby or sex
  • insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping)
  • social isolation
  • changes in appetite and corresponding weight gain or loss
  • suicidal thoughts or behaviors

In the most severe cases, sufferers may experience psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations.

Diagnosis and Treatment for MDD
A doctor or mental health care provider will ask a patient about his symptoms and medical history and prescribe antidepressant medication if necessary.  Seeing a therapist, such as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, for talk therapy, combined with medication, is the most effective treatment.