Major & Great Depression: How Capitalism Adversely Affects Mental Health

“Unemployment is an emergency,” said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “Underemployment is a crisis.”

Take psychological researchers Daniel S. Friedman and Richard H. Price’s famous 2003 research pape, Unemployment: Consequences for the Health and Well-Being of Workersfor example: a paradigm-alerting document which analyzed and revealed the presence of intense toxic self-shaming increases exponentially with the length of  periods of un/underemployment. For instance, “the ex-accountant working retail might start blaming himself for it. He might wonder, ‘what’s wrong with me that I’m here?’ or ‘What’s wrong with me?’” The psychological and physical consequences are staggering: factually, under-unemployed is related to lower levels of health and well-being across all levels of health and well-being.

That sense of shame intensifies if the individual has been forced to take a pay cut, Maynard said. Underemployed workers will often feel a greater financial strain, which can be exacerbated because their new jobs may not provide the same levels of health or retirement benefits as their old jobs, while at the same time making them ineligible for government assistance programs.

David Pedulla, a doctoral candidate at Princeton who is writing his dissertation on the consequences of underemployment, agrees with Van Horn and Maynard—he’s far from the only psychologist who feels this way. “Imagine going from a situation where you had gained some status and control over your day-to-day life, and then moving into a retail job with a boss with less education than you,” Pedulla explains. “That person might feel like he had lost control over his life.” In fact, the theme of loss of control is one that is repeated over and over again by research experts as the globe grapples with the continuous waves of an endangered economic landscape.

With 78% of Americans citing the globally ailing economy as the number one stressor in their lives—especially because of the capitalist health care system, which prevents the most needy from receiving preventative and sometimes even emergency care—for it is essential to get well in order to truly re-enter the workforce—one would think politicians would be racing to Washington  to push through the right-to-work bill rather than allow it to die a slow death on the table, or come up with innovative strategies—and soon.

By 2012, nearly 10 million Americans suffer the formidable psychological underpinnings of underemployment. And that’s on top of the approximately 13 million who remain completely unemployed—some who have been for years on end despite trying to re-enter the job market.

As the years go by, Americans continue, again and again, to witness their government slash social service benefits: Reagan’s destruction of unions, Clinton’s attack on welfare, and Obama’s cuts to healthcare (naturally made to look like tax cuts, which they were not)—all largely in the name of “national security/defense” and during a paralyzing depression.

And it is not merely the economy that is facing such long-standing, ruinous depression: according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “unemployed workers are twice as likely as their employed counterparts to experience psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, low subjective well-being and poor self-esteem,” and since that number is in no way equally distributed across communities (e.g., women, youth, and African American workers suffer significantly higher rates of being forced into part-time, low paying work without imperative benefits for a life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, such as healthcare, vacation, and sick days), it is impossible to argue that capitalism, and the way it operates in daily life (mostly unnoticed, that is), does not hurt the more marginalized members of society—right at the time they need assistance the most.

And it doesn’t only negatively impact those individuals directly, but their families, their communities and their communities writ large. The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues put forth a comprehensive report, illustrating how higher levels of stress due to insufficient wages and longer hours spent outside of the home causes considerable damage to the family unit. In toto, the study proved that “children report more distress and depressive symptoms” and since “depression in children and adolescents is linked to multiple negative outcomes, including academic problems, substance abuse, high-risk sexual behavior, physical health problems, impaired social relationships and increased risk of suicide,” it is only just to deduce that Capitalism is directly—not indirectly—harms or even kills America’s youth.

Similarly baneful outcomes are exemplified in impoverished communities. The pernicious weight of economic depression and being all but physically barred from acquiring appropriate medical care  reduces neighborhood resources, which plays out in myriad, horrid ways such as “inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, restricted access to services and public transportation, and limited opportunities for employment, making it more difficult for people to return to work.”

And this is a fact: “Individuals who face unemployment with greater financial resources, as well as those who report lower levels of subjective financial strain, report better mental health and more life satisfaction than those who experience unemployment with fewer economic resources and a greater sense of financial stress.” 

When put that way, it gets quite easy to understand that it is a social imperative to provide all people with social support programs so they can also live fuller lives, and have the time and mental stability to be more present parents, partners, and community members. What kind of callous world do we want to live in? What future generations to inherit? I have seen my parents struggle. There was no stipend from World War II, as there was for my grandfather; and teachers are just not worth very much in the US regardless of what anyone tries to spout about “summers off,” because they simply have no clue that the overwhelming majority of teachers work all 12 months of the year, from well before school until often into the evening hours. My father, a teacher for his entire career, has had open-heart surgery and suffers from Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). Without my mother’s job-provided health care, my father would be in fiscal and medical dire straights until he reaches 65 (up from 62 in recent years, and in consideration of being raised to 67) and is eligible for Medicare.

As someone who recently procured a part-time job keeping the books for a small business in New York City after over a year of searching for something full-time, that offered a just, equitable wage, and “benefits” (not a maximum of 28 hours a week; over $400 a month for my healthcare premium, which I was “lucky” to be able to received at their group rate,  and $104 for transportation), and suffers from several behavioral health disorders, I understand all too well how underemployment and the toxic self-shaming, anxiety over holidays (a.k.a., days we are not permitted to work, which for me amounts to a “loss” of over $3000 annually; <$6000 when considering the fact that my partner is in the same industry), and a type of exhaustion I never felt while working 35 hours a week and attending two graduate school classes weekly while completing an internship. It is none too surprising but quite infuriating that “underemployment,” which also has exceedingly serious economic and emotional repercussions is scarcely uttered, if at all, in the media. And, by mid-2012, that is simply deplorable, as over 10 million American suffer the formidable psychological underpinnings of underemployment.

An erudite aggregation of doctors and social scientists have deemed the current depression a structural problem—that is, the failure of capitalism as a sustainable, economic model—hence there must be a structural solution to this social dilemma. And this, maybe more than ever, is precisely the time to make a conscious effort to rid ourselves of our game theory school of thought, and realize that the only way to forge a just and sustainable future, one that doesn’t leave the vast majority of our society isolated and ill, and apply a collectively demanded, logic of appropriateness. It is only then that America’s very short history (comparatively) will not be marred by continual exploitation of the poor and the working classes, and will actually become a place where health, family, and community are valued in reality, and not merely in rhetoric.