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A look at unemployment's emotional toll

You walk out of your office building, belongings in hand, jobless. It's a familiar situation, with unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent in the U.S. What next? In addition to the immediate concerns regarding finances, there are the possibly more daunting emotional matters. How do you cope and move on? • We asked Phillip L. Elbaum, a licensed clinical social worker in Deerfield, Ill., and assistant professor of psychiatry at Loyola University Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine; Jeff Hitz, Ready to Work coordinator at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and Skokie, Ill.; Lynn Seinfeld, director of the business institute at Oakton; and George Maltezos, behavioral health program director and co-founder of the Old Irving Park Community Clinic in Chicago, which provides free health care to those without insurance.

What challenges do unemployed people face?

Elbaum: People oftentimes go through the same initial stages of grief they experience when losing a loved one: shock and denial. "How could this happen to me?" They feel powerless because their income source has been removed. People have self-doubt: "Maybe I deserved it?" "I should have seen it coming." Often, people get very depressed. Sometimes people come to acceptance. They start to focus on restructuring their life, which is good. Initially, though, it's very difficult, especially if they have kids and financial responsibilities.

Seinfeld: They're frozen in time. We sometimes find these people are not as engaged as they should be. We try to motivate them, but if there are no jobs, it's scary.

Hitz: So many people we're working with skew toward an older generation. They've been in the workforce for 25, 30 years, and the thought of doing temp work is foreign to them. They're just not willing to recognize the world has changed. The two most common laments I hear are, "It's a black hole. I send out resume after resume and hear nothing back," which is particularly hard for the older generation who likes face-to-face interactions. And the other is the longer they go, (the more) they feel like they're damaged goods.

What percentage of your clients are struggling with unemployment issues?

Elbaum: Of the clients I see, 25 to 35 percent are struggling with job issues. These are people that had very high-paying positions.

Maltezos: Conservatively, I'd estimate that 80 percent of our patients have been out of work six months or longer. The other 20 percent are working below the poverty level. We opened in January 2008, and we had 209 patients and provided 313 clinician visits. Our number of active patients as of September was 1,436. We're going to have about 950 new patients through the end of the year with 4,000 clinician visits. Most of the people in our increased caseload are those who have been put out of work in the last year or so.

What sectors are hardest hit?

Hitz: There are some auto manufacturing, administrative support roles and health care. Everybody says health care is where there are opportunities, but there are layoffs there too.

Maltezos: Fifteen percent are architects, nurses, social workers, business owners and various types of engineers; 20 percent are middle management and administrators; and 65 percent are clerical, labor and blue-collar people.

What are some common physical, behavioral and mental impacts you've seen from the unemployed people you've worked with?

Elbaum: Job loss creates a shock wave throughout a person's whole system. Tension generates more physical issues. Everybody is struggling with something, so when there is a major stressor in one's life, it adds to that and tends to exacerbate previous issues. Many times, people could use maladaptive ways to cope using substances. The major impact is on one's self-esteem. They identify themselves with their job, so when they lose it, they are down on themselves.

Maltezos: Depression tops the list, and next are anxiety disorders. In our clinic, 25 percent of all our patients struggle with depression, 20 percent with anxiety, and 15 percent with alcohol and other drug issues.

What can the unemployed do to get back on their feet?

Seinfeld: Sometimes you have to go down a step to go back up five steps. Sometimes just by volunteering, they're going to get a job.

Hitz: So many people have said to me, "I didn't know what to do. I was sitting at home in shock doing nothing." Our program helped them get focused, think about options and put them back on track. If all you've done for that 1½ years is nothing, you've got a problem, hence the focus on volunteering. Do things to keep your skills fresh and active. The employer is not so much concerned about the time someone has been out of work but the potential erosion of skills throughout that time. Stay engaged and keep your skills fresh and active.

You hear people saying employers are only interested in people who are currently employed, but our board advisers say that isn't the case. There have been 55 to 60 people out of the 350 we serve in our program who have gotten back into the workforce in the last year. One person in our program started thinking outside the box. His background was in advertising. He couldn't find anything in the field, but he also had a great skill as an artist and loved doing caricatures. He took our computer classes, and after class, he'd draw caricatures of other students. They liked them and said, "What about using this skill to move your career forward?" He spent his summer at (Six Flags) Great America as a caricature artist. It was terrible pay compared to what he was used to, but he said, "Hey, I'm working."

Elbaum: People often get into the business of being victims, and they lose their motivation. Take each day at a time. The world's not going to come to an end. Challenge the negativity and realize options. Networking is one of the best things people can do. They have to talk to people, present themselves to people. You have to be able to schmooze.

I tell them to have a structure to their day to maintain motivation: Set out four or five tasks to do in one day and get up and do them. Your job is to get a job. Devote three to four hours a day to looking for one. I call it laser focus: You have to be able to focus on finding a job in a professional area, and if that doesn't work, you have to go to another area.

A look at unemployment's emotional toll 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:31am]

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