Psychological Impact of the Great Depression

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In March 1930 a bone-chilling wind assaulted two thousand men standing outside an Episcopal church on Twenty-ninth Street in Manhattan. The long line twisted its way up Fifth Avenue, filled with people who had heard that the church was dispensing food to the poor. A quarter of them were turned away when the rations ran out. The sight of the long line of needy New Yorkers unnerved the city's residents because many of those waiting for food were clearly in anguish over accepting charity to survive. Many people carried a great psychological burden during the Depression because they had become unwilling participants in the economic breakdown. Americans wanted to work and had believed they would be rewarded for their hard work; most who received welfare aid, from clothing to food and medical supplies, did so reluctantly.

Some critics claimed that people on welfare were freeloaders, but these criticisms did not take into account the shame felt by most able-bodied citizens forced out of work and only able to survive through government welfare programs and private charity. Regardless of class status, many families tried to hide their problems, acting as if they were doing well so those around them would be fooled.

Family life had been changing dramatically during the twentieth century and the transformation continued during the Depression. Family roles were muddled when the traditional male role of breadwinner became unavailable for many men. Merely keeping families together during economic duress became difficult as people lost their homes and livelihood. Some couples delayed weddings due to the uncertainty, while others put off divorce because they could not afford to separate. For many children, the Depression altered their role in maintaining family order. Children had to grow up faster during the crisis; many were forced to forgo formal schooling and get a job at an early age, while also often taking on parental roles to provide solace to those within their own families.

Historian Harvey Green argues that domestic violence and child abuse increased during the Depression. Family disputes over finances, food, and other basic necessities caused tensions to increase. Men and boys often simply fled the home out of embarrassment, frustration, or the inability to cope with the new economic reality. Thousands of people, young and old, became traveling hobos, riding the rails in search of work or some form of relief.

Men's self-image, which had been strengthened by the nation's victory in World War I and the subsequent prosperity of the 1920s, took a beating during the Great Depression. In many cases, men arrived at work to find the doors locked, with little or no explanation. Some families were able to make ends meet by having the wife and children work, a situation that could be humiliating for the husband and father. Studies, such those undertaken by sociologist Mirra Komarovsky for her book The Unemployed Man and His Family (1940), revealed that many unemployed or underemployed men suffered from impotence. Both historian T. H. Watkins and writer Edward Robb Ellis also state that the birthrate slipped as unemployment grew.

During the 1920s, many Americans had begun to equate self-worth with material possessions. Therefore, when times turned bad, people felt worthless. The nation's traditional optimistic outlook was replaced by the reality of economic chaos and confusion. Even among those fortunate or wealthy enough to avoid economic disruption, the Great Depression took a psychological toll. According to Green, psychiatrist's offices were packed in the early 1930s with those from the upper classes attempting to cope with the economic mayhem. The confidence of the average American fell to a general malaise and inertia as unemployment grew and the Depression set in. People waited for something to happen, spinning in circles as they fought to survive.

Suicide became a part of everyday conversation, particularly as the stories of bankrupt Wall Street traders jumping from tall office buildings entered the public mindset. Urban legend regarding mass suicides during the Great Depression far outstripped reality. However, the national suicide rate did increase in late 1929 and continued to increase until 1933—from 13.9 per 100,000 to an all-time high of 17.4 per 100,000. In one widely publicized example, James J. Riordan, president of the New York County Trust Company, killed himself in November 1929 because of the deep shame he felt over losing other people's money, as well as his own loss of funds. Fearing that news of his suicide would cause a run on the bank's deposits, the board of directors did not release a public statement until after the bank closed on Saturday afternoon.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal began to reverse some of the psychological damage inflicted by the Great Depression. The New Deal relief programs helped people to realize that the collapse was societal, and not the result of individual failure. The New Deal enabled many Americans to deflect some of the guilt they felt for their personal economic failure.

The entertainment industry helped divert people's attention during the Great Depression. Hollywood actually entered a boom period, with about eighty million people going to the movies each week. Popular radio entertainers, including Bing Crosby, George Burns, and Gracie Allen, also helped distract Americans from their difficulties.

The Depression left deep emotional scars on the American psyche. The stock market crash destroyed the nation's feeling of invincibility and left its people anxious and guilt-ridden. For a decade, the Depression defined life in the United States, leaving an imprint on the nation that remains apparent at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Whenever the economy sputters, as with the late 1990s dot-com fallout and subsequent recession, many people are gripped by fears of another Great Depression.



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Ellis, Edward Robb. A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929–1939. 1970.

Green, Harvey. The Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915–1945. 1992.

Klein, Maury. Rainbow's End: The Crash of 1929. 2001.

Klingaman, William K. 1929: The Year of the Great Crash. 1989.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941, rev. edition. 1993.

Watkins, T. H. The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America.1999.

Bob Batchelor

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Psychological Impact of the Great Depression

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