Depression stalks long-term job hunters, Gallup survey finds

One in five people who have been out of work for a year or longer identified themselves as clinically depressed, a new Gallup poll reveals. That is about double the rate of all Americans.
One in five people who have been out of work for a year or longer identified themselves as clinically depressed, a new Gallup poll reveals. That is about double the rate of all Americans. The Associated Press

It shows in their monotone voices. Their flat facial expressions. Their reluctance to leave the house, to engage with family and friends.

Depression overtakes about one in five Americans who have been unemployed for a year or longer, according to a Gallup survey released Monday.

That incidence of depression is nearly double the rate reported by adults who have been job hunting for about a month, and well over twice the rate reported by workers who have full-time jobs.

“It’s not a surprise, but it’s still something of a hidden problem,” said Kathryn Lorenzen, a job recruiter and career coach in Kansas City. “Isolation is the enemy here.

“When someone is unemployed for a long time, they tend to lose touch with people. They withdraw from scheduled activities. And the longer they go without structured activities, the easier it is to slip into depression.”

The depression statistics emerged from a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, part of a survey of 356,599 Americans including 18,322 unemployed adults.

The survey found that 12.4 percent of unemployed people said they had or were being treated for depression, compared with 5.6 percent of people employed in full-time jobs. Among the long-term unemployed — those job hunting for 27 weeks or more — the incidence of depression jumped to 18 percent.

“It’s hard to know which people it will strike,” said Maureen Reintjes, who has managed a Kansas City area job loss support group for many years. “It’s often hardest on breadwinners who feel like they’ve failed everyone.”

Those who reach out to others, who attend job clubs and other networking events, tend to do better in warding off depression, Reintjes suggested.

A previous study by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found similar isolation problems among the long-term unemployed. It found that about half of the population it studied reported “shame and embarrassment” that led to their isolation from family and friends.

The Gallup survey said nearly one-third of long-term unemployed adults reported spending less than two hours a day “socially” with family or friends. That compared with one-fourth of all Americans.

“These results don’t necessarily imply unemployment itself causes these differences,” Gallup said. “It may be that unhappy or less positive job seekers are less likely to be able to get jobs in the first place if, for example, employers are looking for more upbeat workers.

“It is also possible that those who spend less time with family and friends are therefore less able to draw on their social networks for employment leads.”

John Dunlap, an Overland Park physician who specializes in internal medicine, said family members, especially spouses, often are the first line of defense against depression among the long-term unemployed.

“They are the ones most likely to recognize the change in facial expression, in the voice, in the inability to practice good health habits or the tendency to sit at home, not involved in their communities,” Dunlap said.

It often falls to family members to recognize the symptoms and spur their loved one to get help, Dunlap said, noting that there often are physical, as well as emotional symptoms of depression.

Lorenzen, the career coach, said that beyond families or physicians, churches and synagogues also are resources to fight depression, whether through trained staff or volunteer conveners of job clubs.

The Gallup survey pointed out that unemployment has long been associated with a variety of psychological ailments, including anxiety and low self-esteem.

“The causal direction of the relationship, though, is not clear from Gallup’s data,” the report said. “It is possible that unemployment causes poor health conditions such as depression, or it could be that having such conditions makes it harder to find a job.”

The long-term unemployed also may have financial worries that keep them from seeking professional help or filling prescriptions for medication that could help them.

The survey also detected marked changes in the level of optimism reported by job hunters. About seven in 10 of those out of work for five weeks or less thought they would become re-employed within a month. That rate plummeted with each subsequent week of unemployment to register at three in 10 after a year.

Leigh Branham, a national workplace consultant who specializes in helping employers retain and “engage” employees, pointed out that depression isn’t just the province of the unemployed. Branham said he sees many workers who are “discouraged, stressed or disengaged” because of the difficulty of balancing workloads and family life.

“With all the other stresses of life, like raising kids and paying bills, I think most employers underestimate the levels of depression out there,” Branham said.

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Incidence of depression

Percentage who say they have or are being treated for depression:

All Americans: 10.1 percent

Unemployed 3 to 5 weeks: 10 percent

Unemployed less than 27 weeks: 12.3 percent

Unemployed more than 27 weeks: 18 percent

Unemployed 52 weeks or more: 19 percent

Employed part time but want full-time work: 10.3 percent

Employed full-time: 5.6 percent

Source: Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index