Addiction, Mental Health and Unemployment

The COVD-19 pandemic has gravely impacted our mental health and addiction due to unemployment in more ways than one. The majority of individuals are anxious about the unknown, and millions of hard-working Americans are experiencing a financial crisis after losing their jobs. We are not only mandated to stay home, but we are mandated to remain home while trying to cope with economic adversity after being laid-off. Unemployment negatively affects our mental and emotional health. Unemployment has the potential to lead to addiction or worsen an already present substance use disorder.

Beyond the negative impact of an economic disaster, COVID-19 presents additional challenges such as fear of the virus itself, collective grief, prolonged physical distancing, and associated social isolation that will all compound the impact on our collective psyche. A job is not just a job for many individuals. Many individuals take pride in how they make a living, and their career becomes a part of whom they are; it becomes their identity. So when this is stripped away, an individual’s identity is also robbed.

The true meaning of work

Our jobs provide a sense of security and offer connection to peers, meaning, purpose, sense of accomplishment, and self-efficacy. When our jobs are stripped away, so are many of these traits.

Nearly 21 million Americans have lost their jobs over the past eight weeks because of COVID-19. The unemployment rate is above 15 percent, well above the unemployment rate during the Great Depression. 

Humans are not robots, we are individuals with needs, feelings, and emotions, and therefore the loss of a job is not just the elimination of a paycheck but also the loss of a routine, security, and connection to others (and not to mention, access to healthcare).

The link between unemployment and suicide

Studies have shown that unemployment is highly linked to suicide, and unemployment during this COVID-19 pandemic is no different. Our country and the world are at an increased risk for suicides, no matter how you see it. Unfortunately, many Americans who are now unemployed are now uninsured and, as a result, are unable to afford mental health treatment. It is a lose-lose situation.

In 2008, the Great Recession ushered in a 13 percent increase in suicides attributable to unemployment, with over 46,000 lives lost due to unemployment and income inequality in that year alone.

Everyone is at risk

This economy crash affects everyone, regardless of his or her job or income. Layoffs have occurred across the board from blue-collar workers and health care professionals to white-collar executives. Budget cuts are being made in nearly every industry because of the doomed economy. Many small businesses have been forced to shut their doors, leaving employees and business owners struggling to pay the bills. Regardless of employment status, bills need to be paid, and mouths need to be fed.

The economic stimulus and unemployment benefits have been a godsend for many, but how long will the government be willing to help those 21 million unemployed and unable to find work?

This pandemic has created a mental health and financial crisis. Many highly educated and highly skilled individuals are unable to find jobs because the economy is closed. Very few sectors are hiring, so the only option is to keep searching and waiting this out…but for how long?

Turning to alcohol as a crutch

Daily drinking, regardless of employment, has made a steady rise during this global pandemic. Those who have lost their jobs often turn to alcohol or drug use to numb their pain, block out their reality, and find a quick escape. Access to alcohol is easier than ever, as almost every business is now offering take-out or delivery. Cocktails “to go” can be ordered via phone and picked up via curbside or delivered to your front door, and liquor stores and dispensaries are delivering alcohol and marijuana at the click of a button.

More people are saying cheers with a drink in hand over virtual happy hours. It’s nearly impossible to scroll through social media without coming across the trendy drink term “quarantini”. Many people have posted phrases such as “days are divided by coffee hours and alcohol hours” or “during a crisis, you know, cocktail hour can be almost any hour”. Many of these phrases and trends are meant to be funny, but when daily drinking becomes a habit, it can suddenly down spiral into an addiction, which is never a laughing matter. Alcohol should never be used as an emotional crutch as drinking can worsen an already underlying depression or suicidal ideation.

Stress, isolation, and boredom increase the need to use

The increase in alcohol and drug use may be related to boredom, isolation, and stress, especially for those who have lost their employment. Job loss can create a sense of boredom, loneliness, and low-self esteem, which can all trigger the need to use. For those in recovery, the combination of financial distress and social distancing can make maintaining sobriety all the more challenging. As a result it relapse rates can be on the steep incline.

It seems that those who are unable to maintain social bonds and a sense of community through virtual interactions are more at risk for drug use and relapse. For individuals who have adopted harm reduction techniques are now using drugs alone instead of with a friend. If an overdose occurs, there is nobody around to administer the life-saving drug naloxone. First responders are finding people alone in their homes, dead due to overdose.

A report released at the beginning of May by the Well Being Trust predicted that up to 75,000 Americans could die due to drug or alcohol misuse and suicide as a result of COVID-19.

Isolation and depression

Mental health experts have argued as far back as the Great Depression that unemployment damages mental health and undermines society’s social fabric. Involuntary joblessness can elicit feelings of helplessness, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

“Who are we if we cannot take care of our families and ourselves?”

“Who are we if we cannot put food on the table?”

Individuals who suffer unintended job loss are less likely to socialize with their friends and family because they feel ashamed or embarrassed, leading to isolation, which leads to depression, and more isolation. It is hard for many to socialize with friends who are gainfully employed when one is struggling to find any job leads, especially during this pandemic.

The economic impact of depression

The World Health Organization has noted that depression and anxiety have an estimated cost to the global economy of $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. A likely surge of people experiencing acute behavioral health problems, both those with new symptoms and those with existing conditions, has the potential to strain the healthcare system further and add cost to an already unprecedented economic downturn.

Staying strong during this time

We must remember that this is not our fault. We cannot blame ourselves for this financial crisis that has occurred because of COVID-19. We cannot blame ourselves for being laid-off. We also must safeguard our mental health in every way possible. Therapy and social connections are imperative for our mental health, but when we are out of work and are mandated to isolate, what other options do we have? For addiction reading about staying strong during this pandemic, read Feelings of Hope During COVID-19

Develop a daily routine: Unemployment can often lead to boredom, feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and depression. We need to develop new daily habits so that we stay active and motivated. This includes the following:

  • Adopt a regular sleep/wake cycle
  • Adopt a daily exercise routine
  • Take time each day to develop a new skill or work on a new project
  • Nourish our bodies with plenty of whole foods and water
  • Spend at least 30 minutes a day outside
  • Spend quality time with loved ones (even if that means virtual happy hours and meetings or practicing social distancing)
  • Spend time to meditate, read, or practicing yoga
  • Spend time to focus on activities that bring you joy
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs
  • Attend community support groups, whether they are virtual or in-person
  • Get in contact with an addiction treatment center