The Shutdown Could Have Long-Term Mental Health Consequences For Workers

Sleepless nights, anxiety and more are plaguing federal employees as they go without their second paycheck.

L. Les, 42, begins to cry as she describes how the shutdown has affected her and her 10-year-old son. She’s behind on her mortgage, car and utility bills. While she has arranged to pay some of the bills later, Les worries about how her credit will be affected by the delays.

She applied for public assistance to get $250 in food assistance but still hasn’t received anything for the month of January, and isn’t sure that she’s going to. She has even approached her church for help. It all stings for Les, who takes pride in being self-sufficient and hard-working.

I’ve never asked anybody for anything,” she said. “I know I’m not a college graduate, but still I work every day and I try to follow all the rules.”

Les is one of the 420,000 federal workers deemed “essential,” so she still shows up for work every day as a member of the TSA in Georgia despite not receiving a paycheck. But she doesn’t know how long she can keep this all up. She’s sleeping poorly, is nervous all the time, and is dealing with anxiety caused by the furlough.

“I try to raise my son to be a good citizen,” said Les, who didn’t want to use her full name for fear she could lose her job. “It’s stressful and I’m talking to a stranger and I’m crying.”

As approximately 800,000 federal workers miss their second check during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, experts say that the prolonged uncertainty of the situation ― in addition to the financial instability ― could contribute to long-term mental health consequences for people who are directly affected by the shutdown, including spouses and children.

Katie Coffman, 38, is married to a member of the U.S. Coast Guard and the primary caretaker of their two toddler children in New Orleans. She says they’ve been lucky enough to fall back on savings this past month, but the shutdown is taking its toll. A piece of their second floor fell through the ceiling and into the living room in December, but they’ve put off the repair.

“Anything that really messes with people’s sense of safety and stability can be traumatic.”

- Sherry Benton, professor emeritus at the University of Florida

Coffman watches the news like a hawk to see if there is any talk of a political solution that will end the shutdown. When she saw President Trump’s threat to keep the shutdown going for “months or even years,” she was filled with despair.

“I definitely had several emotional phone calls with friends,” said Coffman.

Les, similarly, has been glued to the news for any sign of an end to the furlough. When she saw that Lara Trump, President Trump’s daughter-in-law, urged federal workers to view this furlough as a sacrifice for the benefit of future generations, she was despondent.

“I just read Lara Trump saying [to think of] the bigger picture, and that we had to endure,” said Les. “But I’m just like, why does the working class always have to do the enduring?”

Unemployment is stressful for obvious reasons: There’s no money coming in, but bills still need to be paid. Like other large-scale trauma impacting a wide swath of people, people can feel small, scared and powerless in the face of a force they can’t control. But there’s something unique about this prolonged furlough, said psychologist Sherry Benton, professor emeritus at the University of Florida and the founder of TAO Connect, an online platform for recovery treatment.

“What we know is, anything that really messes with people’s sense of safety and stability can be traumatic,” said Benton. “And if it feels like there’s a person or a set of people who inflicted the trauma on you, then the impact is even greater.”

Research comparing the mental health impact of different kinds of large-scale catastrophes or disasters suggests that purposefully perpetrated disasters like terrorism or mass shootings are more likely to result in lasting psychological harm, or cause more pronounced psychological consequences, than natural disasters, like floods and hurricanes.

Widespread unemployment and economic uncertainty have been linked to immediate short-term spikes in suicide and car collisions, and individual job uncertainty has been linked to depressive symptoms and worse mental health in spouses, especially in homes that are single-income.

“You can’t just subject people to these kinds of things as if it doesn’t have an impact, because it does.”

- L. Les, TSA worker

Though furloughed workers know that, eventually, they will be reinstated with back pay, even temporary situations like the federal shutdown can have “scarring” effects on well-being — especially for those who didn’t expect the uncertainty, said Sarah Burgard, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and a researcher on the relationship between work and health.

“An unprecedented shutdown like this could increase their sense of precariousness or fears that additional shutdowns and uncertainty could happen again,” said Burgard in an email to HuffPost. “This could yield some of the same stressful concerns about financial stability that perceptions of an impending job loss could spark.”

Benton has spoken to several federal workers with TSA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who report constant crying, difficulty sleeping and nervousness, which are early signs of a developing anxiety disorder. If they go on long enough without sleeping, they might end up with depression as well.

Both Les and Coffman had experienced a federal shutdown before, but the last two shutdowns had only been three and 16 days. Now that the shutdown looms with no end in sight, both women have no idea what to expect next.

As a member of the Coast Guard, Coffman’s husband can’t simply apply for another job. He can ask for the military to release him from duty, but they can decline.

Coffman, who works 10 to 15 hours a week as a freelance writer and editor, is considering moving her family to be near her in-laws so she can get a full-time job while her children are being cared for.

Les, meanwhile, has no idea what she’ll do if the shutdown lasts for months.

“They’re telling me that all we have to do is hang on so we can get this done,” she said. “But you can’t just subject people to these kinds of things as if it doesn’t have an impact, because it does.”

HuffPost readers: Are you affected by the government shutdown? Email us about it. If you’re willing to be interviewed, please provide a phone number.

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