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What We Miss When We Talk About Depression in Unemployed African Americans

Dr. Bowleg talks with an attendee at the 2013 Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference

Dr. Bowleg talks with an attendee at the 2013 Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference

By Lisa Bowleg, PhD (Professor of Applied Social Psychology, George Washington University)

“What does unemployment have to do with HIV risk?” I might have naively asked that question when I began my career as an applied social psychologist and HIV prevention researcher 15 years ago.  Because the individual is typically the unit of analysis in psychology, individual-level factors such as HIV risk perception and attitudes about condoms predominate in social and behavioral HIV research; not so macro-level factors such as unemployment.

I conduct HIV prevention research with predominantly low-income Black urban men in Philadelphia and Washington, DC.  Not surprisingly, unemployment is a core issue for most of my research participants.  Moreover, unemployment, and its frequent precursor, incarceration, are sources of substantial stress and psychological distress.   There is a considerable mismatch between HIV prevention researchers’ advocacy for condom use in most HIV prevention research and interventions, compared with the priorities of unemployed Black men.  What I’ve learned from the Black men who have participated in my research is that getting and keeping a full-time job are higher priorities than condom use.

I highlighted this point in a recent panel discussion on the impact of The Great Recession on African American employment from a number of perspectives (e.g., psychological, historical, economic) at the 2013 Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC.   My presentation focused on the impact of unemployment and depression on African Americans.  

I began my talk with a photo taken from a recent People Magazine article about 30-year old Kevin Berthia, an African American man who was rescued from a 2005 suicide attempt on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  Berthia noted that his attempt was fueled in part by his depression about having recently lost his Post Office job.

Then, because I am a researcher, not a clinician, I briefly reviewed some of the literature on the topic of unemployment and depression. It will surprise absolutely no one to learn that the research I reviewed shows that regardless of race or gender, unemployed people face more stress and depression compared with people who are employed.  Nor is it groundbreaking news that research documents that people who face longer bouts of unemployment exhibit more depressive symptoms than those with no or shorter periods of unemployment.

There are, however, some interesting findings.  For example, research conducted with a national sample of Blacks and Whites found that unemployed Black women receiving welfare were the most depressed of all of the groups surveyed.   And then there are some more complex findings.  For example, I heard a few incredulous gasps from the audience when I shared that some studies have found no consistent link between unemployment and depression for Blacks; for Whites, but not Blacks.

Some scholars have explained this seemingly counterintuitive finding by tracing it to the historical legacy of Blacks in the U.S. having to deal with unreliable full-time employment.  These scholars posit that one way that Blacks may cope with the precarious situation of being the “last hired and first fired” (if they are hired at all) is to adopt a coping strategy whereby their mental health status is not linked to their employment status.

Other studies have found that Blacks experience greater levels of depression post-unemployment, which researchers trace to Blacks having to face a greater “cascade” of secondary stressors (e.g., having to move, not being able to rely on intergenerational wealth during a period of unemployment) than Whites experience when they become unemployed.

So what helps people who are unemployed, other than the most obvious answer (that would be jobs)?  Research shows that counseling can reduce depression among people who are recently unemployed; that social support from family and friends can be effective; and that certain   interventions (e.g., JOBS, Työhön) that promote job search preparedness, job search self-efficacy, and inoculate against setbacks can be especially effective.  Alas, culturally competent research and interventions focused specifically on unemployed Black populations appear to be virtually nonexistent.

During the panel, I highlighted the importance of social-structural context (e.g., incarceration and racial discrimination) for understanding the phenomenon of unemployment among African Americans.  Take incarceration, for example.  A 2008 Pew Center study found that 1 in 15 Black men over the age of 18, and 1 in 9 Black men between the ages of 20 and 34, were incarcerated in 2008.  Having a criminal record is a substantial barrier to getting a job, making incarceration critical to any discussion of unemployment among African Americans, particularly Black men.   Indeed, a recurrent theme among the Black men who participate in my HIV prevention research is that those with histories of incarceration cannot find employment, even if it’s been decades since they committed and served time for their crimes.

Racial discrimination also remains a barrier to employment for many U.S. Blacks, despite the existence of reams of antidiscrimination legislation at the state and federal level. I mentioned studies in which researchers sent resumes with identical credentials to prospective employers, but changed the names on the resumes so that one resume would have an “African-American sounding” name and the other an ethnically-neutral or “White sounding” name.  You can probably guess the outcome: those with “African American-sounding” names were significantly less likely to be invited for an interview compared with those with “White” names.

Thus, structural factors such as incarceration and racial discrimination are critical to any discussion of unemployment and depression among African Americans.  As such, the most effective depression reduction interventions for unemployed African Americans are likely to be those that acknowledge and address the realities of what it means to be Black and job-hunting in the U.S.   It can be bleak.  For example, several of my co-panelists presented statistics that documented higher rates of unemployment among college-educated Blacks during The Great Recession compared with their White counterparts.

All this begs the question: what role can psychologists play in addressing the issue of unemployment and depression among African Americans?

For starters, psychologists can:

  1. Provide (or make referrals to) free or reduced-fee counseling to reduce depression in recently and long-term unemployed people;

  2. Help people who are unemployed identify sources of social support from their family, friends and religious institutions;

  3. Provide culturally-competent interventions that promote job-search preparedness, job-search self-efficacy and inoculation against setbacks;

  4. Collaborate with other mental health professionals and policymakers to develop effective solutions to unemployment for African Americans such as job readiness, training and early childhood education programs;

  5. Measure and analyze unemployment status as a key socioeconomic variable; and

  6. Advocate for policies to break the link between criminal records and employment.

We want to hear from you. Tell us in the comments:

  1. What role does unemployment play in the work you do as a psychologist?

  2. Should a prior criminal record be an obstacle for future employment? If so, what are the specific crimes for which future employment should be banned?

  3. What kinds of things should policymakers highlight in seeking to reduce the disproportionate impact of unemployment on African Americans?


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Lisa Bowleg, PhD is a professor of applied social psychology at George Washington University. Dr. Bowleg’s research focuses on: (1) the effects of individual-level and social-structural factors (e.g., unemployment, incarceration, racial discrimination) and resilience on Black men’s HIV sexual risk and protective behaviors; (2) intersectionality; and (3) experiences of stress and resilience in Black, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

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