Into Mental Health and Lost Jobs
Nick Clark: When you're unemployed, there's only three days that matter: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I honestly, (LAUGH) half the time I don't even know what day it is. Every day feels the same.
Trymaine Lee: In this pandemic, tens of millions of Americans have suddenly, almost without warning, lost their jobs.
Archival Recording: This morning, we got another rough weekly jobs report. Another 3.2 million Americans filed jobless claims. I'm talking unemployment. (MUSIC) Add that to the last six weeks, and the number is over 33 million. Tomorrow, we're gonna get the April jobs report. And I assure you, it is going to be a bad one.
Lee: These numbers indicate that roughly 20% of the American workforce is out of work, far higher than what we saw in the recession of 2008, when 10% of the U.S. workforce was out of a job. And many experts believe the current unemployment claims are an undercount because millions of Americans have tried to file for unemployment but either couldn't get through or found the process too difficult. The fact is unemployment could be approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. But this isn't just an economic crisis.
Kate Snow: Everybody's talking about the job numbers, the unemployed numbers, how millions of Americans are out of work. And that is going to translate into a mental health crisis.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, a look at what happens when an economic crisis intensifies a mental health crisis. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, we knew the affects of joblessness on mental health. Research shows that suicide rates increase during economic downturns. Now, just a few months into this pandemic, federal crisis hotlines are reporting a spike in calls. And according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, nearly half of Americans say this pandemic is harming their mental health.
Clark: It's not just not having a job. It's a lack of purpose. It's a lack of assurance in yourself that leads to anxiety and depression.
Snow: This is universal. I think everybody's struggling at this moment.
Lee: Kate Snow is a senior national correspondent for NBC and the anchor of Sunday Nightly News. She's been reporting on the connection between unemployment and mental health. So you've been covering mental health for a really long time. What connects you to this issue?
Snow: You know, actually it's personal for me. Awhile ago, I lost my father-in-law to suicide. He was suffering from depression for years. I think that sort of ignited in me a passion to look at this issue more deeply and to really start reporting stories on mental health. And from there, I guess it's been about a decade that I've been doing stories for Nightly News, for The TODAY Show, for all of NBC.
Lee: And so you've been looking at this economic crisis through a lens of mental health. Talk to me about what you found.
Snow: We keep talking about the unemployment numbers and the millions and millions of Americans who are out of work right now. And it struck me that all those people are struggling big time. So we reached out to some people in the country, and I want to talk to you a little bit about Nick.
Clark: I'm in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Snow: My entire extended family's from Minnesota originally.
Clark: All right? Come on, Minnesota. (LAUGH)
Snow: Nick Clark is such a nice guy. He's 26 years old, has a ton of friends, loves working out, loves his community, loves coffee. He managed a place called Lucky's 13 Pub. And he loved his job.
Clark: Our industry, it's go, go, go, hustle, hustle, hustle. People are coming in. People are coming out. I've got a whole staff to manage. I've got inventory. I've got vendors that I'm working with. I'm working with our kitchen staff, our front-of-house staff. Just anything that it takes to run a restaurant, I did. And it's not just my job. These are my family.
Snow: I mean, and he's been doing this, Trymaine, for years.
Clark: 11 years now. Wow, yeah. 11 years. Started at my first restaurant in a retirement community when I was 14. And this industry has been my life ever since.
Snow: He just loves his work. And it completely stopped when the restaurant shut down and they had to let him go.
Lee: Let's talk finances. How is he doing financially?
Snow: So not so good. I mean, on the plus side, he told me that in Minnesota he was able to get unemployment, although it was really hard, it was really tough. He had to wait hours on hold.
Clark: I had to wait three hours one day on the phone. Three hours to not get a hold of anybody. That was probably one of the scariest times for me. Like, not knowing. And this was before we knew that stimulus money was coming through. Really hit, like, a low for me.
Snow: He's worried though because he doesn't know what happens when, you know, is that gonna last forever? And what if the money runs out? He's trying to budget, but he's not sure if it's gonna run out and he's not gonna be able to pay rent next month.
Lee: So what has life been like for Nick ever since?
Snow: He said, you know, "I used to bring joy to people. And now, that's gone." He feels like he doesn't have the same structure that he used to have. He's bored.
Clark: There are certain days where it's great and I can get myself out of bed and try to set up some sense of routine. And other days, you just don't even want to leave your house. You don't want to talk to anybody because there's nothing to tell anybody. Like, what did I do today? Well, I made breakfast. I cleaned the kitchen. I worked out for 30 minutes. I watched TV. It's enough to make anyone kind of start to unravel a little bit.
Snow: Are there days when it's hard to get up out of bed?
Snow: He actually said, Trymaine, that he was glad to do the interview with me 'cause we did it by Zoom. And he said, "Today, I got out of bed knowing that I had something to do, that I was gonna talk to Kate."
Clark: Honestly, there's days where it's 12:00 and you're pouring yourself a glass of wine. And then you think to yourself, "Why am I drinking at noon? Why am I drinking at noon?" And just comes down to there's nothing else to do. You feel like a real sense of loss of purpose. (LAUGH)
Lee: You know, to hear him say that he feels like he lost his sense of purpose is already a punch. But then that he's drinking during the day and people are trying to find some ways to cope with everything that's going on.
Snow: Yeah. And I want to be clear. I don't think he's doing that every single day. But I think a lot of people are feeling that emptiness, that sort of, "What do I do now?" I mean, I know I'm pouring myself a glass of wine at night. It's something that a lot of us are leaning on. And in the meantime, he did start looking for work a little bit, Trymaine. He applied at Target and actually was offered a position at Target.
Clark: But my family and my roommate just told me, "You know what? Stay home. Stay protected. And don't put yourself at risk if, like, you don't need to."
Snow: So he actually passed on that job, which when I first heard that, I thought, "Really? You know, you need to work right now." But then I checked myself and I thought, "Would I? Would I want to work at Target right now? No?" I don't know that I would feel safe being out, you know, in a public service job right now.
Lee: And if you're already feeling strain and then you add that extra layer of, you know, "I definitely want to get paid, but is it worth my health," right? That's a real concern and real risk right now. And this is a guy who sounds like a social butterfly. And now, he's stuck at home. How is he makin' out?
Snow: It's interesting. He told us that he'd never been diagnosed with a mental health disorder in the past or an illness. He's never really had to seek therapy. But now, he's crying. He said, "I'm crying more than I ever have." He's anxious.
Clark: I consider myself someone that is mentally strong. And this has made me realize that maybe I'm not as mentally strong as I thought I was. And I've had several breakdowns from all this. I think I've cried more in the last month than I have in my entire adult life. And you start to feel so unsure of yourself. (MUSIC)
Snow: And pretty much everybody he knows is in the exact same situation.
Clark: Most of my friends are unemployed, too. So we're going through the same thing. And you feel guilty for reaching out to them and saying, "You know what? I'm havin' a bad day. You know what? I'm comin' unraveled today, and this is maybe the third time I've had a mental breakdown. I don't feel like I can do this." 'Cause you don't want to be a burden, 'cause you know everyone else is going through the same thing as you.
Lee: There's so much to unpack there. How is he coping? Has he found coping methods?
Snow: Yeah, he's leaning on his friends for sure even though, you know, you heard him say, "I feel guilty reaching out to my friends." By the way, psychologists that I've talked to, Trymaine, say it is good to lean on your support network. You know, try not to worry that you're putting people out.
Because if you asked them, if you called them and said, "Hey Mom. Is it okay if I call you and, you know, vent to you?" she's gonna say, "Yeah, of course." Like, that's what people are there for. But, you know, it's interesting. He does not have health insurance. So for him to reach out for mental health counseling or therapy right now, he said to me it's impossible. He said, "I can't pay out of pocket."
Lee: There are so many people who have found solace in therapy, but access is indeed a privilege. And so many people don't have access to it. And Nick, I'm sure, isn't alone.
Snow: Yeah. I think it has always been a problem for people to access mental health services. You hear about people who are severely mentally ill having to go to emergency rooms, right, because there's no other place to go. There just aren't enough facilities. But access to mental health care, if I may, Trymaine, in this country is a real issue and has been way before coronavirus. There's just all kinds of barriers. And this crisis is exposing the structural problems that we already had.
Lee: You know, speaking of systemic issues, when you think about unemployment, even when unemployment numbers are low, the black unemployment rate is typically twice the number for whites. And so with Nick, who is biracial, what role is race playing in all of this?
Snow: He said something really interesting. He talked about feeling scared, feeling unsafe as a person of color in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Clark: These are tough times to be a minority.
Snow: And the context for that was that, you know, there are these rallies going on, these protestors, that have been coming to state capitals (and this is happening in Minnesota) demanding that the state be opened up again for business. He lives near that.
Clark: I've got people four blocks away from me. I've got political extremists walking around with semiautomatic rifles thumping down the streets. I shouldn't have to feel like I can't take a walk around my neighborhood when I have protestors outside the governor's mansion.
Lee: There is in fact a race gap at play here. Twice as many black and Hispanic Americans have lost their jobs during this pandemic as have white Americans. That's according to new data. And research is showing that people of color are also more likely to be suffering psychologically right now. After the break, we'll hear what this crisis has been like for people who were already struggling with their mental health even before the outbreak began. Stick with us.
Lee: So we heard about Nick, the restaurant manager who isn't used to struggling with anxiety and possibly depression. But then there are people for whom this was already a struggle even before they lost their job in the midst of this pandemic.
Snow: Yeah, that's right. And so think about that. If you've already had a struggle, you already were seeking help or, you know, really coping with anxiety, or stress, or depression, or something even more serious and now you lose your job on top of that, that can be devastating. That can be debilitating.
And that's sort of the situation for another woman I spoke with, Suzanne Stiglitz. She's in Redmond, Washington, which is east of Seattle. She's got a couple of kids, 11- and 13-year-old boys. And she was diagnosed with depression after her divorce three years ago.
Suzanne Stiglitz: I didn't have some big, awesome successful career that I could easily go back to.
Snow: She had to go back to work. She used to be a stay-at-home mom. So she got two part-time jobs, a substitute teacher's aide. And then she also is a massage therapist, and she got a job really recently, in January, working again as a massage therapist in a senior living community. And she loved it. She loved being in that space. Both those jobs went away.
Stiglitz: The past three years have been already hard. (SNIFF) Like, and I love my kids like crazy. They don't deserve to be already in this situation. So going into this whole pandemic, I was already kind of, you know, broken.
Lee: Wow. To hear someone say that they're broken, to say that, to verbalize that, when you looked in her eyes and you talk to her, did you get a sense of her still being on edge?
Snow: Oh gosh, yeah. You can hear it in her voice. You can see it in her eyes. And, you know, she doesn't feel like she can break down in front of her kids. She wants to sort of shield them from how awful this financial situation is right now with the loss of her jobs. She actually told me, Trymaine, that she sometimes goes and breaks down in the car. She'll leave her one-bedroom apartment and go to her car to cry.
Stiglitz: I can go out and pretend. "I gotta get something outta the car," or, "I gotta take a phone call." So if I really need privacy, that's where I go, whether that's to cry or to call and talk to a friend. (SNIFF) Yeah. That's where the car comes in. (SNIFF)
Snow: It sounds wrong that you have to, like, go off into your car, and hide, and cry.
Stiglitz: When you are a parent, you do know that you've gotta shield your kids to a certain extent. I mean, it's so confusing. Sometimes we're told, "Don't allow your kids to see you breaking, because they need to think," like, "If Mom can't handle it, you know, wow."
Snow: Yeah. But it's a lot to keep inside.
Stiglitz: Yeah. And I have friends, you know, and a sister and a mother. But they only have so much patience and tolerance for the, "Woe is me." She's the single mom.
Lee: Wow. To hear that and to hear, you know, the pain welling in her voice and the idea that she has to go and hide to cry, I'd imagine that that fronting for the children is even more pressure and makes it even heavier.
Snow: Yeah. No, I think absolutely.
Lee: So, Kate, there are so, so many people out there like Nick and Suzanne. What are mental health experts saying about what this might mean for the future when people are all stressed out over jobs and finances all at the same time?
Snow: Yeah, I wish I could start with something positive, but I can't because it's not a good situation. You ask any of the psychologists who work, you know, on a national level and are looking at the big picture here, and they are really concerned. Hotlines are getting an increased number of calls.
There was an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, that noted the deep concerns that the mental health community has right now for what this is gonna mean long term and how many people are gonna end up maybe with temporary mental health issues but maybe with longer-term problems. And that's the question mark, is how long. You know, this is a trauma that we're all living through. That's, you know, the psychological word that therapists use. This is a trauma. And are we all gonna bounce back? No, probably not. (MUSIC)
The silver lining, I will say, they pointed this out in that JAMA piece I was mentioning, is that in past natural disasters and man-made disasters, we pulled together, like 9/11 for example. And actually, the number of, you know, adverse mental health issues went down for a bit. So sometimes the pulling together of America, and all of us, and the support we give each other can help us through this.
Lee: So are there right now mental health resources out there for people like Nick and Suzanne and funding redirected towards making sure that the folks who are going through this are okay?
Snow: I can tell you that there are state COVID-19 crisis hotlines in many states. Some states have offices of mental health also that you can reach out to. If you just Google your state and look for mental health resources, you are probably gonna find a lot.
Even the school districts are putting out. I know my own school district has put out lists of mental health resources for the children but also for the parents, for the adults in the community. So look for those. You may have to seek them out. Now, for some people like Nick, I think part of the solution is gonna be getting back to work, right? So he is so hopeful that if he can get his restaurant job back, that will really help his mental state.
Clark: I cannot wait to get back. I think I'm like every American. I complain, "Oh, I'm so overworked. I can't wait for a vacation." And, man, I got one extended vacation that I would trade back in a heartbeat to get back to doing what I honestly love.
Lee: Thank you, Kate, so much. This was a really important conversation to have. And I'm glad I was able to have it with you. Thank you.
Snow: So glad to be here. Thanks.
Lee: Kate Snow is a senior national correspondent and anchor of Sunday Nightly News. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan, original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next week Monday and Thursday.