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SocietyApril 20, 2020

First, take a shower: How to protect your mental health when you’ve lost your job

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

The risks to mental health during times of soaring unemployment is a crisis within a crisis, writes clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire. But there are steps you can take to come out the other side of unemployment in good mental shape.

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every facet of our lives, including rising unemployment rates both here and across the globe. The United Nation’s labour agency predicts that worldwide working hours will decrease 6.7% during April-June 2020, the equivalent of 195 million lost jobs. Last week Treasury released modelling showing that in a best-case scenario New Zealand’s unemployment rate will be kept under 10%; at worst it could rise to 26%.

We know that having a job provides financial security, routine and social support networks, factors that all contribute to our wellbeing. Those who consider themselves to have a career or calling (as opposed to “just” a job) may perceive their work as integral to their identity, self-esteem and life purpose. It is therefore understandable that losing your job unexpectedly is linked to grief, a feeling not only reserved for bereavement.

Research has shown that losing your job during a recession is associated with heightened psychological distress, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, risky behaviour such as drunk driving, suicidal behaviour and reduced life satisfaction. Having to manage financial debt, pre-existing mental illness or a family with children increases your vulnerability. Lower education levels and being female also appears to increase the risk of reduced mental health, whereas suicidal behaviour has higher prevalence in males.

Longitudinal data indicates that depression, generalised anxiety, panic and substance use can manifest for up to three to four years post-recession. From a family perspective, unexpected job loss also has implications including increased tension and disruption within the home. Unfortunately domestic violence is also predicted to rise alongside the unemployment rate.

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The mental health effects of unemployment are a crisis within a crisis. With increased substance use, suicidal behaviour and domestic violence all set to increase, Covid-19 is unlikely to be the only predictor of mortality during the pandemic. Protecting our mental health through this time is not optional, and will take partnership between individuals, communities and government. While working through the mental health impacts of Covid-19, will be difficult and complicated, there are steps each of us can take if we find ourselves facing unexpected unemployment.

Separate unexpected job loss from your self-worth

Tying your employment status to your self-worth can cause sudden unemployment to come as more of a blow, and make it more difficult to think optimistically about the future. Instead of allowing yourself to think that you lost your job because you were not valued or good enough, remind yourself that you lost your job because Covid-19 caused a global recession.

Establish structure

Daily routines provide a sense of purpose and promote health, positivity and connection. Get up, get showered and get dressed. Eat well, exercise daily, and engage in activities that are meaningful to you.

Prioritise connections with those who support you

We know that social connection is critical for wellbeing, especially when you are feeling vulnerable. Hopefully the people in your bubble can offer support as you go through the job loss process, as blame and shame can lead to withdrawal, demotivation, anger, low mood and anxiety. If you need more support, do what you can to virtually connect with people who care about your wellbeing.

We also know that participating in group activities and contributing to your community is associated with enhanced mental health. This of course poses a challenge during lockdown. Do your best to engage in online gatherings, and brainstorm how you might be able to give back to your community – it could be volunteering to deliver prescriptions or groceries to those unable to leave their homes, or simply deciding to create a magnificent teddy bear window display to bring cheer to local kids.

Validate your emotional experience

When we are able to accurately label our feelings – for example, grief, disappointment, anger, worry or shame – it helps us reduce the intensity of our emotions and increase our higher order cognitive functioning. That’s things like problem solving, planning, and the ability to redirect unhelpful thoughts, all of which can help reduce feelings of helplessness during periods of unemployment.

Hold realistic optimism about reemployment

Realistic optimism in the context of unemployment is characterised by believing that your unexpected job loss was not a personal failing, and that employment opportunities will reoccur in the future. This style of thinking makes it easier to take useful action such as planning and problem solving, which in turn makes it more likely you’ll land a new job.

Ask for help when you need it

Reaching out can feel difficult for many reasons. You may not want to be a burden on others, you may feel that other people’s hardship is more significant than your own, or perhaps you want avoid feelings of shame. It’s important to remember we are in this together, however, and you will not be judged for calling on support.

The social safety net in Nordic countries like Sweden appears to offer some protection from the mental health risks of recession (Photo: Marco Verch / Creative Commons 2.0)

Alongside the proactive measures we can take if we find ourselves unexpectedly losing our jobs, policy decisions also play a critical role in protecting the mental health of our communities during an economic crisis. In prior economic downturns, it was the countries with robust social safety nets that best mitigated the mental health effects of increased unemployment. During recessions in Sweden and Finland during the late 80s and early 90s, for example, a significant increase in unemployment did not translate to increased mental illness rates – in fact suicide rates diminished.

According to the World Health Organisation, governments can support mental health during recessions by focusing on five key areas: active labour market programmes (for example wage subsidies to keep people in jobs), family support programmes (for example, domestic violence support), policy to increase the price and reduce consumption of alcohol, enhanced resourcing for the mental health sector, and debt relief programmes.

While the devastating economic consequences of Covid-19 are getting a lot of attention, it is important that we understand how the pandemic will affect our nation’s mental health. Losing a job can cause real harm to mental wellbeing, but it doesn’t have to. The more we understand unemployment’s potential impact on mental health, the better we can break down stigma around job loss, remove barriers to support networks, and enhance access to preventive psychological tools.

He waka eke noa. We are all in this together.

Keep going!