In the Midst of a Recession, You Should Expect to Feel Depression.

I originally published this article under a slightly different title in January 2009. The country was entering what would come to be called "the greatest recession since the Great Depression." The stock market had staged a rally on an exceedingly bad jobs report - the thinking was that the news was so bad, surely the government would take effective action and quickly. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the Obama "stimulus package") would be signed the following month.

I began the article with a story that was told by Ronald Reagan about a child who wakes up on Christmas to find a pile of manure:  excited, the child begins digging, assuming their must be a pony in there somewhere.

The story is about false optimism. My point at the time was that things were going to get worse before they get better and that people should expect to experience feelings of depression. 

A similar situation exists today in 2020 - people are facing an entirely uncertain future and there is a false sense of optimism afoot in the land. This time however, unrealistic expectations are being promoted in the context of political strife. 

The article was primarily addressed to individuals who had lost their job - people experiencing a life-challenging sense of loss. 

When the report came, showing that the economy had shed more than half a million jobs in November, the stock market staged a brief rally. The thinking was that with news this bad, surely the government would step in to help. It's like the story of the child who wakes up on Christmas to find a pile of manure: excited, the child begins digging, assuming their must be a pony in there somewhere.

It is not at all likely, however, that those who have been thrown out of work in recent months will be looking to find a silver lining.

There is an extensive literature on the connection between unemployment and psychological well-being, and the news is not good. In a recent report on work and health from the American Psychological Association, it was noted that: "the loss of work has been consistently linked to problems with self-esteem, relational conflicts, substance abuse, alcoholism and other more serious mental health concerns." In every respect, and not just financial, one's quality of life is at risk when unemployed.

The fact is that work is often essential for psychological health. It is the "playing field" for our dreams and aspirations, and an important source of pride and satisfaction. Work is where we find challenges and a sense of meaning, and the chance for self-determination and personal empowerment. It is not just a matter of survival and security. Work plays a complex role in our social lives. It is a link to the broader cultural fabric of life and a regular source of social support.

Clinical depression is a common and expected result of the experience of loss. Beyond the sense of loss, those who have been displaced from the economy can expect to experience shame, fear and uncertainty, and a whole series of stress factors related to survival and adaptation. Imagine what happens to your identity when you are no longer a breadwinner or when you suddenly become dependent on an unemployment check. Imagine the adjustments you might have to make in your lifestyle or your role in the family or your daily routine.

The effects will also be felt by those who remain on the job. Their future is no longer certain, and it is often observed that they can suffer "survivor's guilt." It is a whole new stress at work: "Am I next?" Time that was previously devoted to productivity and engagement will be spent worrying, wondering and watching.

Depression is a genuine and significant health concern. The current unemployment numbers are pointing towards a potential public health crisis.

So how should you respond if you have become one of the "walking wounded?"

First, if you are feeling depressed, don't worry about it. It is normal and expected. There is no reason to worry more about the fact that you are worried. You don't want to be depressed about the fact that you are depressed.

Watch for the signs. What you may notice is: you are feeling sad or empty most days; life no longer feels interesting or satisfying; you can't sleep or you can't eat, or you are eating too much; you are unusually restless or fatigued; you are feeling worthless or guilty; it is harder to think or to concentrate; or you seem to have unusual pain or physical discomfort. These are the symptoms of clinical depression.

If you are depressed, you might also notice that you are drinking more, fighting more often with your spouse, and more likely to be irritable and impatient with your kids.

If you have thoughts of death or suicide, that is the only sign necessary to know that you are depressed.

If you are depressed, don't hide from it. Don't pretend it's not happening to you. Talk to your friends, your family and the people you love. If you are a person of faith, talk to your faith leader.

You also want to stay active. Stick to a routine, exercise regularly and think about working as a volunteer. When you are out of work, a real good use of your time is to go back to school. Classes will keep you occupied, interested and motivated. Education is a good way to fill that hole that is starting to grow in the middle of your work history and to prepare yourself what comes next in your career.

Unemployment cannot readily be cured. Depression, however, can be cured. If it is becoming too much to handle, speak to your Doctor or find a therapist. Get help. Don't be ashamed. (Take the Psyris Depression Screening.)

This recession is going to be deep. The rates of depression are going to rise. The research shows quite clearly that many who suffer emotionally will not fully recover, even when they return to work. We all need to understand that we are facing a pile of manure and that there is no pony to be found.

The task now is to survive, to hold on, and to reach for the future. The best way to do that is to take care of yourself, and to remain optimistic, confident, and filled with a sense of meaning and purpose, despite all indications that this is an uphill battle.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.