4 science-backed ways to cope with depression if you've lost a job and feel like you also lost your sense of purpose

  • This World Mental Health Day comes at a difficult time for many people. 
  • Some 19.4 million Americans without a job right now said their joblessness stemmed from their employer ending operations due to the pandemic, per recent government data.
  • This can mean that many Americans are likely experiencing "unemployment depression" right now.
  • "Unemployment depression" is when being unemployed or between jobs negatively impacts your mental health, according to psychologist and relationship expert Dr. O. Christina Nelsen. 
  • Rates of depression rise among unemployed individuals the longer they go without finding work, a 2014 Gallup poll found. 
  • If you're struggling, call the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. 
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This World Mental Health Day, millions of Americans are likely facing the anxiety and sadness that often comes with being unemployed. 

There are currently 19.4 million Americans without jobs right now who say their joblessness is because of the coronavirus pandemic shuttering their employer's operations, according to recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

A piece in The Atlantic found that the number of Americans reporting depressive symptoms is rapidly increasing. Some experts quoted estimate up to 50% of Americans could be suffering from some sort of mental health issue.

Psychologist and relationship and sex therapist Dr. O. Christina Nelsen, who uses they/them pronouns, calls the very real feelings "a situational response" or "situational depression." The San Francisco-based mental health expert says they've had many clients who show symptoms of "unemployment depression," even after voluntarily deciding to leave their jobs. 

If the novel coronavirus pandemic has led you to losing your job, know that you're not alone in feeling a mix of very difficult emotions. Here's an explanation of what many call "unemployment depression," as well as steps to cope with it. 

We're independent, but we're also lonely. And unemployment shines a spotlight on that. 

Today, we don't have to socialize with others to have our needs met.

Think: ordering food from your apartment to be delivered, shopping for clothes online in your room, working remotely, going to the grocery store by yourself. One's income, not one's community, is the thread that connects all these activities. Pull the thread out (by losing your job, or deciding to leave your job without another one lined up) and the whole tapestry of one's life unravels. 

If you don't have a job or a community that you know can help you get back on your feet, your mind goes into survival mode.

"Our neurophysiological systems are going to start getting activated. From a bio-survival standpoint, it becomes, 'Okay, can I survive? Am I going to be able to eat? Am I going to have shelter?'"

Many people, especially those who are single or live alone, don't have much meaningful contact with humans outside of work, Nelsen added. So when a relatively isolated person loses their work friends, they lose a large part of their social network.

Indeed, many Americans report being lonely, a 2018 survey by health insurer Cigna found. Nearly 50% of the 20,000 people polled reported feeling lonely or left out always or sometimes. While it's difficult to quantify if loneliness has in fact increased over the years, rates of volunteerism have decreased, and more Americans report having no religious affiliation, the American Psychological Association found.

Unemployed individuals are more likely to suffer from depression, with symptoms worse for anyone who is without a job for six months or more. A 2017 study from thee University of Leipzig, Germany, came to a similar conclusion: Older, long-term unemployed workers are more likely to have depression than the rest of the population. Additionally, a 2015 study found that the odds of depression were about three times higher for unemployed young adults (ages 18-25) than their employed counterparts.

You feel defined by what you do for work. 

There's a narrative, especially in American culture, that what you do for work defines who you are, Nelsen said. 

Think of how conversations flow between strangers. "What do you do?" Is usually one of the first questions people ask each other. Nelsen, a frequent traveler, anecdotally noted that they find Americans start conversations with info about their jobs much more frequently than people from other countries. 

"Actually in a lot of other cultures that's considered really rude to ask because that's what you do, not who you are. Right? There's so many more interesting things about you," they said.   

Here's how to cope with 'unemployment depression.' 

  1. Get professional help, even if finding an affordable option takes time.  

"Unemployment depression" can feel like real depression, and it can also trigger someone who is prone to clinical depression into a depressive episode. Symptoms of clinical depression include insomnia, appetite disruption, having difficulty experiencing pleasure, having low energy, and suicidal thoughts. If you are struggling, it's important to seek help from a therapist or mental health professional immediately. 

Finding an affordable therapist might be difficult, but there are options. Search for local clinics, community-funded centers, or universities that offer free services under the care of graduate-level students overseen by licensed professors. In addition, ask your insurance provider which therapists are in-network, and ask out-of-network therapists if they use a sliding scale for someone without a job. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's hotline also offers free, confidential, 24/7 treatment referral information. Simply call 1-800-662-4357. 

  1. Don't be afraid to reach out to friends, and lean in to your social networks. 

While you may be tempted to isolate, especially out of shame over not having a job, it's important to connect with others, Nelsen explained. 

"We're social beings, we need connection to thrive and to survive," they said. 

Find a meetup group, go do an activity that's not work related, sign up for a class, or even just give an old friend a call to start. 

  1. Change your narrative 

Identifying yourself by what you do for work isn't necessarily a bad thing, Nelsen said. But identifying yourself only by your job is. Remember who you are outside of your job, and be aware of the narrative you're telling yourself. 

Instead of thinking to yourself I'm a failure. Nobody wants to hire me, counter that with thoughts like I'm educated. I have a substantial work history. I have skills to offer. 

  1. Break down your day into small tasks. 

Every big tasks in life, like finding a new job, can be broken down into small steps, Nelsen said. 

Make a list with a couple things to do each day. "Say, I'm going to update my LinkedIn page, update my résumé. I'm going to go for a walk," they said. 

"Break things into more manageable pieces and don't make it such that it's all consuming, you're only thinking about finding a job," they said. "Try to find other moments here and there to settle your nervous system, connect back to your sense of self, and connect with other people."

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