THURSDAY, Aug. 19 (HealthDay News) -- The economic downturn has
put thousands of Americans out of work, but their bank accounts
aren't the only things suffering as unemployment remains high and
they struggle to find a job.
Surveys by Mental Health America and other researchers have
found that people affected by the lousy economy have a higher risk
for mental illness, especially such conditions as depression and
The U.S. government has taken steps to help. Federal stimulus
and jobs bills and unemployment benefit extensions helped some
people cope with the effects of the bad economy. And new rules that
took effect in July require that group health insurance policies
offer the same level of coverage for mental health issues as for
other medical or surgical issues.
The government also has promulgated rules to ensure that large
businesses that choose to offer mental health and substance abuse
benefits make them available at a level comparable to their
existing medical insurance benefits.
David L. Shern, president and chief executive of Mental Health
America, considers these important steps toward keeping Americans
mentally healthy as they stand on the brink.
"We need to make sure we provide adequate social safety nets so that, although they will have their life strategy disrupted, their ability to meet basic needs will continue," Shern said.
The Mental Health America survey found that unemployed people
were four times as likely as people with jobs to report symptoms
consistent with severe mental illness.
But the harmful mental effects of the economy aren't limited to
the unemployed. People whose jobs were changed by the economic
downturn -- those who went through involuntary job changes or had
their hours or pay cut at work -- were twice as likely to have
symptoms consistent with severe mental illness, the survey
It also found that unemployed people were four times more likely
to think of harming themselves and twice as likely to report
substance or alcohol abuse or worries about their mental
"People are anxious and people are depressed," Dr. Nada Stotland, a psychiatry professor at Rush Medical College in Chicago, said of the current state of many Americans. "They're just very, very discouraged. They have trouble sleeping. They may have trouble eating, or they may stuff their mouths with whatever's flying past."
At a time when they need professional help more than ever, many
people have less access to it, the survey also revealed. About half
of the survey participants who were unemployed said they had
difficulty obtaining health care. Of those who hadn't spoken to a
doctor about their mental health concerns, 42 percent said it was
because the care was too expensive or they didn't have insurance to
Stotland said she has seen this in her own practice. "What
happens is not necessarily that people don't come in," she said.
"It's a concern that they don't come in because they lose their
insurance or don't have the money. I have two patients who are in
that bind right now."
She said she's urged them to come in anyway, explaining that the
financial issues can wait, but people often are reluctant to feel
as if they're taking advantage or freeloading.
For those who do have health insurance, the government's new
mental health parity rules might relieve some of the pressure. The
rules require that group health insurance plans for businesses with
more than 50 employees treat mental health benefits on a par with
standard medical and surgical coverage in terms of out-of-pocket
costs, benefit limits and plan management practices, according to
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But unless unemployed people have access to COBRA, a program
that offers continued coverage for a time in such situations, they
may not benefit from the new rules.
However, Shern and Stotland noted steps that people who are
unemployed can take to help care for their mental health,
- Embracing the transformative possibilities of their new lives.
"They can see this not as the catastrophic end of a lifelong plan
to be successful, but more an opportunity to look at that plan,
take a look at the world and be ready to take advantage of new
opportunities that will eventually emerge," Shern said.
- Making sure they stay connected with people. "When people are
unemployed, they are going to lose that connection," he said. "They
lose a very important social network that they had."
- Finding pleasurable and relaxing pastimes that don't cost
money. They could go for a walk, play with their kids or enjoy an
old board game that's been gathering dust on a shelf. "Thinking
about it, there are a lot of things to do," Stotland said. "There
are all sorts of things you can do that you've been
- Eating right and exercising. Following a healthy lifestyle has
been shown to promote mental wellness and decrease depression and
anxiety, Shern said.
Mental Health American has more on
maintaining mental health by living well.
Read more about the
stress of those seeking work.