Animation courtesy of Julia Veldman
Thirty-three million people have filed for unemployment in the United States in the seven weeks since the coronavirus was detected here. Add to that isolation, the stress of a dangerous illness, caring for children and loved ones, and not knowing what our country or economy will look like a year or even a month from now, and what you get is a lot of Americans experiencing symptoms of depression.
Depression is common. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 264 million people experience depression, and women more affected than men are. And early evidence indicates that women are struggling more with mental health during lockdown that men are. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted, and exacerbated, Americans’ struggle with mental health.
To better understand the relationship between depression and unemployment, and what to do if you find yourself experiencing both, we spoke to Victoria Shivy, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and is an associate professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Shivy studies the relationship between work and life, and in addition to teaching at VCU, she has a clinical practice in Richmond, Virginia, oriented around career-related concerns.
Depression is a very normal response to unemployment—it can feel like your very survival is threatened
“Depressive symptoms, and symptoms of anxiety, both are normal and expected responses to unemployment,” Shivy says. “Working is a core human activity. Our jobs provide us with structure and a sense of belonging. They also give us purpose and a sense of meaning. But at base, we work to survive. So when we lose a job, our very survival can feel threatened.”
Shivy says signs of depression and anxiety—feelings of sadness or helplessness and changes in appetite or sleep—signal we need to take extra care of ourselves. The structure and purpose that was lost as a result of losing your job or not being able to work can be replaced with other things. “We all are being challenged right now, and unemployment intensifies that. Self-care keeps you strong as you ride out a very challenging time,” she says.
4 practices to cope with depression and unemployment
Create structure in your day
Create a schedule and stick to it. Set an alarm, get dressed, eat breakfast, and make a plan for the day that includes exercise, talking to friends and family, and an activity that helps you express your feelings. Shivy recommends expressing feelings of sadness, fear, frustration, anger, or shame as a means of relief and distraction. You might do this through a physical activity like exercise or dance, or through journaling, drawing, or music.
Get emotional support from family and friends
Make this part of the structure in your day. Make an appointment with a friend to talk on the phone every week or even every day. Video chat with your family. Speak to your neighbor—from at least six feet away.
Carefully manage your sleeping and eating habits
Getting good sleep when you’re depressed isn’t easy. The National Alliance on Mental Health has created this resource on getting better sleep when you’re experiencing depression.
In an article published by Harvard Medical School titled “Diet and depression,” Dr. Monique Tello writes, “what we eat matters for every aspect of our health, but especially our mental health,” and cites a 2017 analysis that found a link between decreased risk of depression and diets high in fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, and antioxidants, and low in animal foods.
Engage in regular exercise
A regular exercise practice can help you create much-needed structure in your day. You don’t need to train for a marathon, though. Walking is exercise.
Shivy says creating structure, getting emotional support, managing sleep and eating habits, and getting regular exercise are critical but often ignored practices. “Most people I see need gentle but continuous prodding to put these things in place.” So if you have a friend or family member who could use a little prodding, do it, and ask them to check up on you as well.
What if you can’t afford professional help?
There are ways to find professional help at little or no cost, even if you don’t have income or health insurance. And seeking help is critical if your symptoms intensify over time, Shivy says. “Professional help comes into play when symptoms (the helplessness or hopelessness, inertia, fear, anger) become moderate or severe. Job loss is associated with real, ‘clinical,’ depression and anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and even an increased risk for suicide.”
So if you need help, money does not have to be a barrier. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free, confidential helpline where you can get information about treatment and services in your area.
The number for that helpline is: 1.800.662.HELP (4357)
SAMHSA also has a suicide prevention hotline at: 1.800.273.TALK (8255)
There may also be local resources that can provide or refer you to free or low-cost care. Religious organizations (like churches), nonprofits, and universities are good places to start. For example, in the Richmond area, she recommends Health Brigade, CrossOver Ministry, and VCU’s Center for Psychological Services and Development.
Seek out professionals with titles like licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed professional counselor (LPC), or licensed clinical psychologist (LCP). LPCs, she says, may have had specific training in career counseling. Nurse practitioners (NP), physicians assistants (PA), and psychiatrists (MD) can also help and are able to prescribe medication.
More mental health resources
Substance use treatment locator: findtreatment.gov
Behavioral health treatment services locator: findtreatment.samhsa.gov
Opioid treatment program directory: dpt2.samhsa.gov/treatment
Early serious mental illness treatment locator: samhsa.gov/esmi-treatment-locator