Support groups offer jobless solace, help Members must fight stigma, bad economy


New York -- When you're out of work, you're fighting more than the slow economy. You're up against social attitudes that infect your friends, your associates and your very soul.

Americans devalue the jobless, as if everyone who is out of work probably deserves it. Somewhere in our minds lies the illusion that the world is just. Therefore, the logic runs, if you were capable, you wouldn't have been fired.

In today's economy, these beliefs are patently untrue. Plant closings, downsizings and business failures hit good and mediocre employees alike.

Still, many employers look with suspicion on the unemployed. And the unemployed themselves are often overcome with shame and self-blame, as if their predicament were their own fault.

To battle these destructive feel ings, the jobless (correction: call them "job seekers") are increasingly banding together in support groups. No one keeps count of their number. But they're springing up everywhere, in churches, clubs and community halls.

At Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del., members range from a man who was, until recently, homeless, to an executive fired from a $250,000-a-year job. They open each meeting with a "two-minute drill," which "summarizes who you are professionally, what you've done and what you want to do," says group leader (and my brother) Robert Bryant. "It's what you want people to remember about you, if they mention you to someone else."

At a similar group in New York City's Marble Collegiate Church, leader Rosemary Corello announces a handful of job openings, many of them forwarded by people connected with the church.

Is anyone an accountant? A person with international banking experience? An administrative assistant? Some support group members volunteer to call for details about the positions.

What do support groups talk about? How to lick a common problem, like getting past the secretary of somebody you'd like to see. Ways to redesign a resume for today's results-oriented market ("bank vice president" doesn't impress any more; you have to sell yourself as a bundle of transferable skills). Whether anyone knows someone who can open a door at a particular company.

Many groups invite speakers: outplacement counselors, ministers, psychologists, representatives from the unemployment office. But mostly, support-group members help themselves by helping each other. If you make a useful call for another group member, you feel more competent and valuable.

A good deal of research has been done on the mental state of the unemployed, says Dr. Barrie Greiff, a psychiatrist and co-author of "The Psychosocial Impact of Job Loss." Without doubt, he says, social support relieves your sense of stigma and personal failure.

Support groups can't save you from economic deprivation, but they buffer the perception of deprivation, which is a form of salvation in itself.

Almost no research has been done on what happens to the spouses of the unemployed. It appears, however, that their level of personal anxiety may be higher than that of the job-seeker himself.

"You feel so isolated and lonely," says a modestly paid teacher who, for 12 months, was the family's only breadwinner. (Memo to those with jobs: Keep seeing and talking with your unemployed friends.) This particular wife has just started a support group for spouses.

If you'd like to start a group, it might help you to see the free outline used at Westminster Presbyterian. Write to Robert Bryant (still leading the group although now employed as a consulting chief executive at a small firm), 2303 W. 11th St., Wilmington, Del. 19805. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope.

Most support groups are discovered by word of mouth. Some, however, are listed in the National Business Employment Weekly, found on major newsstands. The phone book might show a Forty Plus Club that -- for a fee -- helps middle-age #F executives organize their job searches and also offers support groups.

The only known list of self-help clearinghouses (some of which cover the unemployed) costs $1 plus a self-addressed, stamped envelope, from the National Self-Help Clearinghouse, 25 W. 43rd St., Room 620, New York, N.Y. 10036.

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