Job loss and depression often seem to go hand in hand, but it turns out layoffs may take a greater emotional toll on Americans than people in other countries.
A new study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology looked at the effects of job loss resulting from plant closure among workers ages 50 to 64 in the U.S. and Europe. It found that the unemployed workers in this country were much more likely to be depressed than the Europeans.
Overall, job loss was related to a 4.8 percent increase in depression rates in the U.S. and 3.4 percent increase in Europe. But when researchers looked specifically at people who were laid off due to plant closure, depression rates increased by 28.2 percent in the U.S. compared with just 7.5 percent in Europe.
What explains the difference? It may have more to do with the economic safety net than other psychological factors.
"Although studies need to conduct research on this subject to evaluate the reasons for these differences, one possible cause can be the social protection nets available in each context," study author Carlos Riumallo-Herl, currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard School of Public Health and research assistant at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told CBS News in an email. "Europe, overall, has more protective welfare systems that may reduce the negative effects of unemployment due to plant closure."
"This research emphasizes the importance that social policies have in protecting the health of elderly individuals during hard economic times," he said.
The study was conducted between 2006 and 2010, a period of time that included the initial phase of the economic recession that started in 2008, causing significant job losses in Europe and the U.S.
In the 50 to 64 age group, unemployment jumped from 3.1 percent to 7.3 percent in the U.S. and from 5.4 percent to 6.15 percent in the EU-15 countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom).
Interestingly, the researchers found that Americans who lost jobs and who were poorer before the recession experienced significantly greater increases in depression symptoms compared with those who were wealthier prior to the recession. By contrast, in Europeans who experienced job loss, pre-recession wealth status did not make a difference.
"What this conclusion implies is that household accumulated wealth has a more important role in the U.S. when protecting an individual's mental health from becoming unemployed," Riumallo-Herl said. "Consequently, the greater the wealth in the U.S., the greater the potential [for people] to protect themselves in a period of unemployment."
"I think it is an intriguing study," Dr. Eric Hollander, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study, told CBS News. "They have some really important findings."
"Older workers are a particularly vulnerable population," as it is harder for them to retrain and learn new skills, he added, which is often crucial in finding employment after experiencing a job loss.
Other experts underscored the importance of policy changes.
"Job loss is a profoundly disruptive experience," Lisa F. Berkman, a professor of public policy and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study, wrote in a related commentary. "As economies become more globalized and job transitions more common, the identification and implementation of policies that enable both societal as well as personal resilience will becomes increasingly important. This new piece of research points us in the right direction."
In the study, the researchers examined data from two major health surveys that included responses from 38,356 people in the U.S. and the following European countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The people in the study were classified as either employed, unemployed and looking for work, retired or disabled. The investigators distinguished between reasons for job loss: due to a company or plant closing down, redundancy, and other reasons such as the end of a temporary contract. The Europeans in the study were rated on the Euro-Depression scale (EURO-D), while the U.S. participants were rated on the short version of Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CESD-D).