SEATTLE—Losing your job isn't as simple as losing your income. For many, it's losing a social network, even an identity—an increasingly dismal prospect as bills pile up amid an uncertain future.
"It's probably the time in life when you're feeling least confident, and yet it's the time when you have to be the most confident," said Anita Gray, who spent eight years in financial services before becoming jobless this fall. As you seek a new job, "you have to be the best possible version of yourself every single day."
With recently released figures showing a state jobless rate of 9.3 percent, such support groups play a crucial role, offering spiritual lift and camaraderie as much as career development and networking benefits.
Similar groups exist in Tacoma and Bellevue, while others have been offered through churches such as St. Thomas Episcopal in Medina. Some groups, such as Facebook-based Seattle/Tacoma Job Hunters, exist only online.
Meeting in person, though, offers its own rewards.
"Job hunting is a lonely experience," Gray said. "It helps to come here and realize you're not alone."
That support can be especially keen the longer the job search continues, as anxiety and depression threaten to settle in. One Job Club Seattle member said she began grinding her teeth at night to the point where she needed emergency dental surgery.
"None of us deals with change very well," said Danielle Eagleton, employment manager for Seattle's Sound Mental Health.
"We're talking about how people identify themselves. When you lose a job, there's a loss of self."
"People equate their employment with their own meaningfulness in life," said Declan Wynne, the agency's director of integrated services. "We try to show them how to find ways to make your life meaningful, even when you aren't working."
The agency, Wynne said, has seen a rise of about 100 new clients monthly compared to last year, and while clients don't announce their work situation, it turns out many of them are in fact jobless, experiencing depression and anxiety for the first time.
As a result, Sound Mental Health recently hired five new staff in its employment department to help clients toward new jobs. "The longer you are unemployed, the more the symptoms kick in," he said.
The downward spiral begins with optimism. People figure they'll find a job within a few months, but the more time passes and the more rejection letters they get, the more disillusioned they become.
"Eventually, you see people who don't want to get out of bed, who say they're not hungry anymore," Wynne said. "They think, 'What's the point in applying for this job? I haven't gotten anything else.' "
That in turn can affect relationships, as emotional stress compounds the strain of economic difficulty.
"When I first got laid off, I thought, 'Oh, in three months, I'll have a job, it's no big deal,' " said former systems program manager Xenia Chilkowich, who runs the Facebook group for Seattle-Tacoma job hunters. The experience, she said, has been depressing at times. "But right now," she said, "my priority is surviving."
Support groups offer a chance to express concerns and trade knowledge in a nonjudgmental environment. "It's hard to get out of that cycle alone," said career and life coach Theresa Wester of Kirkland, Wash. "It's easy to just go to bed and pull the covers over your head."
Job Club Seattle started out early this year as four people around a coffee table, but on a recent rainy afternoon, 18 members come to the Madison Park Starbucks from throughout the Puget Sound area.
Members find the group energizing and empowering.
"I do feel better being around people," said Kathleen Seliga, who's been seeking accounting work for two years while watching her money run out.
Some have gone on to jobs at places such as Disney and Microsoft, whether through group connections or simply the techniques they learn here. "We're showing them how to bait their hooks, basically," said the group's moderator, an unemployed former patent lawyer.
When Lani Olson, whose library-sciences background and photo-agency experience put her on the hunt for information-cataloging jobs, another attendee said he could suggest a list of manufacturing firms whose product-design sketches often need such organization.
"I never would have thought of that," Olson said, a common reaction among the group, which offered its applause.
Those with upcoming interviews are celebrated. And with fears of a job-market slowdown until after the New Year, they urged each other to kick into high gear.
For Gray and others, that uplift is just what they need. "The hardest thing isn't looking for work," Gray said. "It's staying motivated."
Such energy motivation paid off for Gray with a pair of recent interviews.
"Our lives can change like that," she said. "It only takes one offer."