Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama recently talked about the staggering number of jobs lost during this economic downturn.

President BARACK OBAMA: Make no mistake, these are not just numbers. Behind every statistic, there's a story.

SIEGEL: So today, we will here one woman's story. Many people are resilient after a job loss. But for some, there is a real emotional cost to being unemployed. NPR's Alix Spiegel reports on the psychological toll that job loss can take, amid indications that these costs are on the rise.

ALIX SPIEGEL: It was 4:01 on November 4th when Sylvia Martinez looked up from her desk and noticed that her boss was crossing the room - walking, she realized, in the direction of her work station.

Ms. SYLVIA MARTINEZ: I was sitting at my desk about to shut down my computer and go home. When she came to me, she was like, I need to talk to you.

SPIEGEL: Sylvia, a human resources administrator who supervised a handful of employees, made $52,000 a year, and had been at the job for a year and a half. She loved it. At the end of the day, she would look back through the hours and see clearly what had been accomplished. The work was satisfyingly tangible. And so her conversation with her supervisor really came as a surprise.

Ms. MARTINEZ: We went into the project director's office, and that's when I was fired. And I was like, okay. I just - I didn't know what else to say.

SPIEGEL: In fact, it wasn't until she got into her car that the reality of what had just happened hit her.

Ms. MARTINEZ: It takes me about 30 minutes to get home. I cried the whole time, then I stopped at 7-11. And I went into the restroom there, and I washed my face and just tried to get it together because I didn't want to tell my children.

SPIEGEL: Martinez didn't want to upset them. No job meant no community college for her son and daughter, no preschool for her 4-year-old grandson - a radical change of plans. And so she said nothing when she came home that night. The next morning, when she woke up, she told her family she was staying home to watch election results. The morning after that, her excuse was a headache. But panic attacks made the poker face hard to maintain. And in the three months since her layoff, the sense of panic has only deepened.

Ms. MARTINEZ: I apply for jobs, I apply for jobs but nobody calls, nobody. I've even went as far as applying at fast-food places. I've applied at Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target.

SPIEGEL: But no luck. And like a number of people who have found themselves unemployed in this difficult market, Martinez is clearly struggling to maintain her emotional balance. For someone like Martinez, a sole provider who has worked consistently since her kids were small, the loss of her job was about more than income. She is clearly struggling to remember who she is.

Ms. MARTINEZ: To be home all day long, it is the hardest thing to do. I feel so worthless and so hopeless. I have to wake up in the morning. I have to go to work. (unintelligible) but know that I have a job and I have an income and I'm providing for my family. It's just so hard to be home.

SPIEGEL: Hard enough that a couple of days after Thanksgiving, the general depression that Martinez has struggled with since she was let go tipped into something more serious. By then, she had confessed to her children that she'd lost her job.

Ms. MARTINEZ: My children and I had got into an argument one night because I had promised that I was going to buy them something and then, of course, I couldn't buy it for them. And we argued about that.

SPIEGEL: After the argument, Martinez went to her room and found herself fighting thoughts of suicide. She called a suicide crisis line but hung up when the phone was answered. She walked down the hall, sat with her 4-year-old grandson, told him he could grow up to be anything that he wanted to be. Then she went back to her bedroom and swallowed four muscle relaxants, six pain killers, and three Tylenol PMs. She woke up sick throughout the night, then pulled herself from bed at 8 in the morning, utterly ashamed.

Ms. MARTINEZ: I took a cold shower and got dressed and just sat outside. And it was really cold that morning, and I just sat there. And then I got into my car, and I drove to the Catholic church, and I just sat in the church and just asked for forgiveness. And just asked God to help me, because I didn't want to let my children down any more than I did. And that's the day that I realized, I need to do something.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

SPIEGEL: This is the office of CrisisLink, a suicide hotline based in Arlington, Virginia. It is, in fact, the hotline Sylvia Martinez hung up on the night she tried to kill herself: A small room full of young people murmuring, seriously, into telephones.

Unidentified Man: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

SPEIGEL: In the last 12 months, the number of calls to this room has shot up. The hotline used to get around 150 suicide calls a month. Now, it's closer to 270. And Margaret Mathis(ph), a manager at the hotline, says that calls specifically about financial problems are up 40 percent, more than anytime in the past.

Ms. MARGARET MATHIS (Manager, CrisisLink hotline): I've never heard so many people worried about where they're going to - how are they going to keep a roof over their head, and clothes on the kids, and food on the table. It's very different than it was.

SPIEGEL: Other crisis hotlines - in California, Florida, Texas - have also reported increases. And the National Suicide Lifeline, a network of interlinked lines like CrisisLink, says that the number of calls they've gotten in the last year has risen around 35 percent. Now, it's important to be careful with these numbers. More calls do not necessarily mean more suicide. Mathis says it's better to view them as a kind of crass gauge of stress in the country. You see, callers to the lines cross the economic spectrum.

Mathis talks about calls she's gotten just in the last couple of weeks: a man concerned for a family member who had lost millions; a poor, single mother of three just a night or two away from living on the streets. And then there was a middle-aged woman who called because she had recently been laid off from her job of 20 years, and was literally paralyzed with fear. She told Mathis she was unable to leave her bed.

Ms. MATHIS: I probably talked to her for 45 minutes or so. And, you know, we talked through it, and she decided what she was going to do was, to get out of bed and take a shower and have a glass of orange juice, and then really try to get back online and start filling out applications again.

SPIEGEL: Huh, that's so small. Does the action plan that you usually come up with, is it usually something along the lines of get up, take a shower and have a glass of orange juice?

Ms. MATHIS: Well, our plans can be really, really small, and they can be really, really big - like, you know, put the gun down.

SPIEGEL: Mathis says callers often seek out the anonymity of the crisis line because they feel an intense sense of shame after losing a job, and will resist talking even to family and friends.

Ms. MATHIS: You know, sometimes it's easier to reach out and talk to a stranger that you don't know.

SPIEGEL: Sylvia Martinez, for example, says that though she's close to her father, she couldn't bring herself to tell him until about two weeks ago - three months after she lost her job. She also doesn't talk about her problems with her kids, but does feel like her 4-year-old grandson can sense that she is in trouble.

Ms. MARTINEZ: He is always asking me if I'm going to leave him. So, wherever I go, he goes. He'll come into my room a couple of times throughout the night to check on me. And he'll just come over to me and say, grandma, are you okay? And I say, yeah. Okay, I see you later.

SPIEGEL: Sylvia's trying to stabilize. She gets up at 3 every morning to check her cell phone for messages from monster.com and other job Web sites. She goes each day to the library to send out resumes, but still…

Ms. MARTINEZ: Some days are better than others. I just try to remain as active as possible, just because the anxiety is so overwhelming, I can't even describe it. It's such an ugly feeling.

SPIEGEL: Sylvia Martinez says she has eight more weeks of unemployment benefits. If she doesn't get a job before then, she doesn't know what she'll do.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.