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Description: Think about someone who is two years post-graduation and unemployed and clinically depressed. Are they depressed because they cannot find work? Or are they unable to find or keep work because of the symptoms of their depression? Welcome to the world of correlational research.

Sources: US News and World Reports

Date: Released March 19, 2015
Depression and Joblessness

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“I am sooo depressed, I have been out of school for 2 years and I have not found a decent job”. How might we analyze that statement from a Psychological perspective? Well, first, we need to factor out situations where someone says they are “depressed” when they really mean they are sad, or stressed, or feeling unmotivated from those situations where the individuals involved are actually struggling with symptoms of clinical depression. Next we need to look at what kind of data there might be that bears on the research question.

McGee and Thompson (2015) report a correlation between unemployment and depression among young adults with depressed young adults being 3 times more likely to be unemployed that non-depressed young adults. So what are the causal factors at work here? Well I will leave that speculation up to you but this data does NOT speak to the question of the nature of the causal link between depression and unemployment, which the authors readily acknowledge. Perhaps more importantly the media report of this study also acknowledges the lack of causal clarity. What sort of research might we do (and what sort of research might we be ethically permitted to do) that would speak more directly to this question of causality? Well that IS the big question. One thing to note, by the way, is the data reported in the Globe and Mail article (link above) which shows employment rates of graduates from different university majors/faculties 6 months after graduation (Based on a study by the Council of Ontario Universities, 2014) and which indicates that the vast majority of graduates across all areas of study are employed 6 months out.

It is important to not only consider maters of causality but also the larger contexts surrounding reported findings when thinking both about issues of causality and about what additional information or logical next research steps might be required to properly understand a situation. Sometimes that research exists and can be searched out and other times it needs to be done or our ability to do it properly is understandably limited by what sorts of studies we can ethically design. As an example that may be less obvious, consider the claim made my many dental websites that there is a causal link between the health of peoples’ teeth and their heart health. The two things are certainly correlated but whether there is a causal link between gum disease and heart health is a more complex question. Think, for example about what you would predict about the tooth health of people who work hard to eat properly and get significant amounts of regular exercise (without even looking at their smiles!)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What hypothesis can you generate about the possible relationships between depression and unemployment?
  2. What sorts of studies might we design to address the hypotheses you generated above?
  3. What sorts of ethical considerations are there is designing the studies in your answer to question 2? Are there ethical issues involved in how the media, psychologists and even dentists talk about research to the public?

References (Read Further):

McGee, RE, Thompson, NJ. (2015) Unemployment and Depression Among Emerging Adults in 12 States, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2010. Prevention of Chronic Disease, 12, 140451

Council of Ontario Universities (2014) University Works (PowerPoint Presentation),—February-2014.pdf