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‘I feel stuck’: Philadelphians struggle with the effects of unemployment on mental health

"The worst thing is that we had to leave behind a business that worked."

Emma Steiner, a therapist.
Emma Steiner, a therapist.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When Joe Ronca locked the doors of Kawaii Kitty Cafe in Queen Village on March 15, he thought the popular spot, which he co-owned with his partner Kristin Eissler, would be open again after a few months. The couple quarantined at home and prepared to ride out the pandemic, like hundreds of other small-business owners in Philadelphia.

Through the spring and summer, Ronca and Eissler tried to find a more sustainable business model during the pandemic for Kawaii Kitty Cafe, where patrons pay to interact with the cafe’s cats. They sold merchandise online and at pop-up events. The couple also began streaming video games on their Facebook page, featuring adoptable cats. They were buoyed for a few months by donations, and grateful they were able to place the remaining cats in foster homes. Ronca, who worked as a videographer before opening the cafe, filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) in April, which also helped.

But by fall, Ronca and Eissler realized it was no longer feasible to hold onto their lease for the cafe.

“I want to wave a magic wand and make it better for her, but I feel stuck,” Ronca said.

Ronca is among the millions of Pennsylvanians who filed for PUA, many of whom are still having issues accessing benefits while also struggling to process all they’ve endured this year.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is 7.3% as of October, 2.7 percentage points higher than the same time last year. Unemployment rates spiked in April at 16.1%, and have gradually decreased since, although certain sectors such as hospitality and retail are still struggling to recover jobs lost in the spring. And last month Philadelphia introduced new restrictions to manage the rising number of COVID-19 cases, causing some employees in those industries to go through a second round of layoffs.

Research quantifies what most of us probably have assumed: Unemployment does nothing positive for mental health. A 2015 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that young adults who were unemployed were three times more likely to report depression, compared to those who were employed. A survey published last month in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that of the 5,000 Americans aged 18 to 26 who responded, 60% lost their jobs since March or lived with someone who did, and 40% expected to lose their jobs in the next four weeks. The individuals who had lost their jobs were more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Increased stress may be one of the reasons people experience symptoms of depression and anxiety during unemployment, said Emma Steiner, director of clinical services at the Council of Relationships, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides counseling, including free and low-cost therapy. Plus, job loss can damage self-image, she said.

“The loss of a job is a really significant loss,” Steiner said. “Jobs often have a lot to do with how we think about ourselves, identity and purpose. There’s also a sense of identity that may come with being able to provide for other people, or yourself. Shame can be really profound when you lose a job. Your negative beliefs about yourself can be reinforced, and depression can be related to that.”

Another complicating factor: PUA benefits may run out for 12 million Americans who aren’t normally eligible for regular unemployment benefits in their state on Dec. 26.

“Having that safety net mitigates the stress of paying for food, shelter, and safety,” Steiner said. “When that stress is not at the forefront, people can cope better with other aspects of the loss.”

Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Christopher Hallock said many Pennsylvanians couldn’t get needed unemployment benefits.

“People weren’t able to make mortgage payments, food payments, and the situation was causing a lot of grief and uncertainty,” Hallock said. “When we started receiving those complaints, we wanted our office to let people know that we hear them. We do whatever we can to facilitate getting the issues resolved.”

Anlin Wang, a 27-year-old activist in West Philadelphia, lost his job working for Bernie Sanders’ campaign early in the pandemic. He applied for PUA benefits at the end of April and received funds for a few weeks before they stopped with no explanation. Wang spent months trying to figure out why his benefits had stopped.

“I was owed $12,263 in unemployment,” Wang said. “I obviously want that. To be financially stable for the first time in my life would be nice.”

He eventually received the missing funds in mid-November but said fighting for benefits while also organizing protests during a time of great civil unrest was frustrating. It was uncomfortable to focus on his own needs during such a crucial moment for the country, he said.

“I’m a pretty calm guy,” Wang said. “I felt bad every time I called because of how upset I was. I felt bad fighting for myself, but I can’t leave $12,000 on the table. It’s not responsible. When you add all those things together, it’s a lot to deal with. It feels like your government has abandoned you and is actively depriving you of services.”

Steiner said it’s especially important for people who feel ashamed of not having work to remember that the pandemic’s effects are universal.

“We’re in a pandemic that is not being well-managed by our government,” Steiner said. “It’s not you. It’s everybody. People sometimes try to take responsibility for things outside their control, but that’s a recipe for feeling worse.”

Steiner also tries to remind clients this is a temporary situation, though it is dragging on for months. “It’s really important that people keep that perspective,” she said.

Ronca received PUA payments of $1,000 a week until early summer, when the funds stopped with no explanation. But Ronca had recently inherited money, so he was able to continue paying his bills. He doesn’t know what’s next.

“We were waiting for the day we could reopen,” Ronca said. “People were still booking visits months in advance. We tried to hold on as long as we could. But it’s beating a dead horse at this point and all of our money went to holding on to the cafe … we can’t support the empty store anymore.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at