If you’re reading this, you know I’m not working right now. Needless to say, this past year has been enormously challenging for me. In any case, having spoken with
And Moms? If you’re reading this, I am OK -- really I am. LOL
Unemployment as a Public Health Issue
If heaven really exists: then heaven is the job, hell is unemployment, while life is merely an interview.
-- Mokokoma Mokhonoana
-- Mokokoma Mokhonoana
Sometimes I feel as if I live in a multiverse. In one universe, I am a well-adjusted, if financially challenged individual. In another parallel reality, I’m going through hell, am fantastically depressed, and not coping well at all. LOL I think a lot of how I’m feeling is the result of my accumulated experiences. I have been, after all, in places and situations most people never survive. I know adversity all too well and so I have been able to adapt in ways that keep me “healthy.” I also have a support network of friends and family that really help me keep it together. Without them, I’d be stark raving mad. Unfortunately this is not true of everyone.
Most discussions of unemployment are framed from an economic perspective. However, unemployment-- especially long-term unemployment -- is a public health issue. It is hard to quantify, but I’m willing to bet that suicides, the destruction of family cohesion, and the wholesale evisceration of communities are just some of the consequences of unemployment. In fact, did you know that being unemployed could possibly kill you? One study, for example, found that unemployment was strongly linked to increased long-term mortality. In this study, researchers tried to statistically control for other pre-existing risk factors, such as age, weight, smoking, excess drinking, social class, and other factors. Still, the increased risk was 47 percent.
Why are unemployed people at greater risk? What could be a reason for these higher rates of mortality? Research has shown that unemployed people are more likely to have poor health habits, characterized by excess drinking, smoking, lack of exercise, and a sedentary lifestyle. The fear of unemployment has been linked to increased cholesterol levels. Research indicates that higher death rates of previously-unemployed individuals (followed over a 24-year period) are related to higher rates of suicide, accidents, cancer and cardiovascular disease. The fact that these health risks continue for 24 years suggests that unemployment is a potentially dangerous life event.
Research also indicates that unemployment is associated with a range of increased health problems. For individuals with no prior health problems, being fired or laid off increased the risk of fair or poor health by 83 percent in one study. In a study of 13,451 adults followed over an 18-year period, previous unemployment was linked to a significant increase of acute myocardial infarction. This risk was most pronounced in the first year of unemployment. The longer you are unemployed and the more frequently you are unemployed, the greater the cumulative risk. Indeed, the risks associated with unemployment may be of the same magnitude -- or greater -- as smoking, diabetes and hypertension.
I believe that one of the most pernicious effects of unemployment is the isolation that one experiences. It might seem easy for you to tell someone to keep their spirits up, but do you really understand what that entails? I’ll give you a personal example. For decades, one of the highlights of my week has been meeting with my members of my support group and going out to dinner together. It may not sound like a lot, but this is a time of bonding, laughter, of sharing, and generally fellowship and good will. Because I am not working, I have tended to shy away from these important weekly meetings because I frankly cannot afford to dine out. I am fortunate that my friends seek me out and insist I participate and are only too happy to pay for my dinner. And I’m comfortable enough to accept their largesse without feeling too self-conscious, but I don’t go every week.
I can only imagine how easy it is for others who may not have a network of supportive relationships, familial or otherwise. I’m lucky in that I have what some sociologists call “social capital,” but not everyone has that.
I also have the luxury of speaking to other people in situations similar to mine and we’re able to share about the feelings of shame and inadequacy that come with being unemployed. Sharing the feelings of stigma often helps to mitigate those feelings and it helps to know that it’s normal feel depressed or inadequate, or even to have feelings of having failed. If you see other people going through the same, you then understand that what you’re going through isn’t abnormal, or that there’s something wrong with you. Believe me, that kind of validation is a huge relief for someone going through the often catastrophic change of being unemployed.
So, what should be done? What are the implications in the face of these facts? First, unemployment should be considered a health-risk health factor. Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control gear themselves to address these risks. Addressing the psychological and lifestyle effects of unemployment could significantly impact longer-term health of the unemployed (and underemployed). Second, the people who are experiencing unemployment should be empowered to address their health needs. I don’t care how much counseling you get, if you can’t afford to eat, you’re going to manifest health problems.
Third, there should be a national dialog on the issue of a basic guaranteed income.1 Your life and health and, by extension, the health of you family, community, and nation should not hang solely on whether you been “downsized” -- a euphemism for corporate malfeasance. Being able to make ends meet should be a right and it would make us a stronger nation. And before you start mewling about the undeserving, or laziness, or economics, please consider the enormous economic and moral costs of living in a society that sees the unemployed as expendable. Think of the children of those who were driven to suicide, or who have succumbed to life-ending disease.
Unemployment is not simply a minor inconvenience or a passing phase. And, for some, it may predict higher levels of risk that take a toll decades later. Recognizing unemployment as a health factor -- both for individuals and our society -- and providing the services to help address it negative impacts can have long-lasting preventative effects.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
1. At the end of the ’60s, President Richard Nixon’s plan for a partial basic income passed the House of Representatives before stalling in the Senate. No longer a proposal of bleeding-heart lefties, basic income was endorsed by a slew of notable economists (including several who went on to nab Nobel Prizes).
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