Losing Your Identity: How unemployment has taken a toll on Southwest Floridians’ mental health

Reporter: Sara Girard
Published: Updated:
Florida unemployment

Losing your job can feel like losing your identity. When you first meet someone, oftentimes your first question is, “What do you do?”

Although the jobless rate has dropped by more than half since May of last year, the effects of unemployment and underemployment are weighing heavily on people all across the country.

Researchers from the University of California San Francisco estimate about 30,000 people in the U.S. have died directly because of pandemic-related unemployment.

“I’m not sociable like I used to be anymore because this is all I can think about,” said Gene Gerald of Cape Coral. “I’ve always been a provider.”

Up until January of this year, Gerald worked as a finance manager at a car dealership. He said he’s worked in the industry for almost twenty years, but not anymore.

“That’s just something that I’ve done since 14 years old. I don’t know any other thing but to work,” Gerald said. “It hurts my pride because I’m a man, I’m supposed to take care of my family. And I can’t do that.”

He’s all about family, with two teenagers, a 12-year-old and his wife, who’s nine months pregnant.

“My wife should be happy and feeling secure and not worrying about, are we going to get kicked out? Where is my newborn baby going to live? What are we gonna do for bills? I don’t want that burden on them. So I take it on myself.”

It’s a lot to take on. And what’s worse? The safety net he thought could help him get by in the meantime is Florida’s troubled unemployment system.

He’s one of the countless people stuck with a hold on his account for months, missing thousands of dollars because the system thinks he’s in jail when clearly he’s not.

“It’s to the point now that anytime they see me walking around on the phone, they’re like hey are you on the phone with unemployment again? Or are you waiting for them again?”

Like most people, he wants to find another job. He’s even open to going to school for an entirely new trade. The problem is it takes gas to get there. And like everything else, gas costs money.

“Many people do go into depression, they have feelings of worthlessness,” said Dr. Alise Bartley, who runs the Community Counseling Center at Florida Gulf Coast University. “And if you’re not in a good place it’s really hard to put your best foot forward to be able to interview for a job.”

She said it gets harder to overcome the longer you’re unemployed and with so many problems collecting benefits.
She calls this “learned hopelessness.”

“We just don’t have enough services to go around for everyone in our community,” Bartley said. “And that’s why it’s really important that family and friends are reaching out to those that are may be struggling with their jobs and careers.”

In April, Governor Ron Desantis held a press conference that brought to light the mental health impacts of unemployment, particularly for cruise line workers. One woman there spoke about how her colleagues and friends were reaching their breaking point, some even considering suicide.

“What we want is to go back to work. What we need is to go back to work,” said Monica Sebata, a former employee with Cruiseport Destinations in Miami. “It’s not just the financial aspect, it’s the emotional and the mental and the physical well-being of these people, of all of us.”

A Pew Research survey shows right now 70% of people without jobs say it’s left them more stressed, 56% say they’re having to deal with anxiety and depression, and 81% say they feel lost, they’re arguing more with loved ones, and they’re experiencing other emotional issues.

Anne Lindberg of Port Charlotte was furloughed from her corporate travel agent job right at the start of the pandemic.

“The past year was full of stress, anxiety, and just the unknown.”

She’s got such a bubbly personality, you might’ve never known she had to start taking antidepressants.

“I thought this, I’ve got to get out of this hole,” Lindberg said.

For months, she said it was nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning.

“I’ll tell you what, really makes you grateful for working all these years, and really makes you grateful for your paycheck compared to what Florida gets for unemployment, which nobody can live on,” Lindberg said.

Lindberg holds on to the fact that she might soon get back to work.

“Now I think, with the vaccinations and everything, it’s going to help,” Lindberg said.

Gerald is also looking for work and hoping he’ll feel like himself again soon too.

“It’s just a battle, I just have to keep on fighting,” Gerald said. “I’m positive, and I’m confident it will get better. I just can’t, I don’t know when.”

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, anxiety or other emotional issues or having thoughts of suicide due to financial stress related to unemployment, there is help.


Community Counseling Center

Student and Community Counseling Center – Second floor
10501 FGCU Boulevard South
Fort Myers, Florida 33965

Local providers for crisis, in-patient or after-hours care:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Hours: Available 24 hours
Languages: English, Spanish

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information.

1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Hours: Available 24 hours
Languages: English, Spanish

United Way 211 – Lee, Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee

“United Way 211 is a free 24-hour non-emergency helpline that exists to help people navigate their way through the maze of human and social service agencies in Lee, Hendry and Glades counties by providing the most adequate resources for the client’s situation. To speak with one of our Community Resource Specialist please dial 2-1-1 or 239-433-3900.”

United Way 211 – Collier

“Collier 2-1-1 is free, confidential, open 24-hours, 365 days a year, and connects with more than 250 agencies working to help with a wide variety of issues. Reach out to us by any of the methods listed below and learn more about how we can help.”

United Way 211 – Charlotte

“Charlotte 2-1-1 is a program run by the Charlotte County government and is not a part of United Way of Charlotte County. Charlotte 2-1-1’s database contains over 600 health and human service providers, representing local services available throughout Charlotte County. Our goal is to expedite the exchange of information between customers and service providers.” Access the database at: www.Charlotte211.com

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