It's Depressing

Article excerpt

Losing a job and being out of work is downright depressing. So found Cornell researchers when they studied the effects of unemployment on mental health. Now they are looking at the effects of several social support services on the mental and overall well-being of the unemployed.

What happens to the mental and overall health states of people when they lose their jobs? can unemployment compensation or welfare benefits soften the blow? These questions are core concerns for Eunice Rodriguez, assistant professor of program evaluation and planning in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management.

"I am interested in how different types of social support can help people through periods of economic transition and economic insecurity," says Rodriguez. "How do these systems of support help people stay healthy?"

In today's economy, it's easy to dismiss unemployment as a problem of the past. Employment figures in the United States are strong. Working people numbered 134.1 million as of November 1999, according to reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor. The unemployment rate for the same month and year held steady at just 4.1 percent.

But despite the favorable figures, many people are still out of work. Rodriguez names corporate mergers, downsizing, workplace restructuring, and international competition for low-wage unskilled labor as factors that have made unemployment a reality for 5.7 million people in the United States. In New York State, more than 461,000 people were jobless as of October 1999.

Whereas most discussions, policies, and programs relating to unemployment emphasize its economic consequences, Rodriguez has turned her attention to health, specifically mental health outcomes. She has found through her research that unemployment instability--that is, fearing unemployment or passing in and out of the workforce--has a profound impact on well-being.

"We know there's a relationship between unemployment and health, but we're still investigating how that relationship came about," Rodriguez says.

The long-term application of her research may be new policies and interventions to abate the ill effects of unemployment.

In one study published in the International Journal of Health Services, Rodriguez and colleagues Kathryn Lasch and June P. Mead looked at which form of social support--unemployment compensation or welfare benefits--is best for alleviating the negative mental health consequences during periods of unemployment. The researchers measured negative mental health consequences as levels of depression.

Unemployment compensation, as defined by the researchers, is an entitlement benefit offered only to those who have worked before. The benefit usually lasts no more than 26 weeks and is, quite simply, a shield against poverty. Welfare, on the other hand, includes means-tested programs, and recipients often receive the benefits for a long period.

Using the National Survey of Family and Households, Rodriguez and her collaborators found that the jobless who received unemployment compensation did not report that they were any more depressed than the employed. But unemployed people who didn't receive unemployment compensation or who received only welfare were more likely than employed people to say that they were depressed, even after the researchers controlled for total household income and length of unemployment.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that unemployment compensation is a beneficial resource for the unemployed. The support can help fend off bouts of depression. Welfare benefits, however, don't seem to provide sufficient relief for the jobless because either the monies provided by the programs are not enough, or the social stigma of "being on the dole" could add stress, which might outweigh the benefits of welfare.

"Also, people who qualify for those programs are the most vulnerable in society," Rodriguez says. …