Mental health outcomes in times of economic recession

Following the publication of a recent article in BMC Public Health investigating the link between recession and mental health, we asked co-author Diana Frasquilho to explain more about their findings.

How does recession affect mental health?
How does recession affect mental health?
Pixabay

As a mental health researcher placed in Portugal, it was not long after the start of the crisis that I started to assume that this economic recession would threaten the health of populations. During my research, I came across several of my friends and family complaining about the economic crisis, the difficulties with paying ordinary bills, the decrease in quality of life and general well-being.

This was especially true among those who lost their job and were taking a long time to get back into the labor market. I felt compelled to use my research skills to help improve knowledge about the possible effects of the economic recession on mental health.

The economic recession that started in 2008-2009, made countries, with already weak economies (high public deficits and debts), powerless in face of their foreign debt. This was the case of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain who had to undergo in structural adjustments to reduce public spending.

Health and well-being of people are shaped by their day-to-day living conditions; thus, recessionary changes like job loss, financial strain, debts and job-related problems may influence the extent of vulnerability to mental health problems that individuals face.

Health and well-being of people are shaped by their day-to-day living conditions; thus, recessionary changes like job loss, financial strain, debts and job-related problems may influence the extent of vulnerability to mental health problems that individuals face.

The effects may be especially important since, even before the recession, health-related problems were already common and the main cause of disability and premature death in Europe.

At the beginning of this research only few studies to our knowledge had completed a systematic review of evidence related to associations between mental health and the economic recession factors. To gather as much evidence possible about the effects of the economic recession on mental health and the most vulnerable groups was therefore imperative.

How does the recession affect mental health?

Based on the available literature we can expect that periods of recession may increase anxiety and depressive disorders. It may also be possible that in order to cope with such psychosocial stress people might turn to substance misuse, like binging on alcohol.

Although there are reports of growing suicidal ideation in countries facing recession, such evidence is still very limited because suicidal behavior is very complex and depends on many factors ranging from cultural background to individual factors.

Vulnerability during economic recession

There are some key factors that seem to make people more vulnerable to the effects of recessions. These are being unemployed, having a precarious work situation, facing debts and economic strain, and having a pre-existing mental disorder.

There is also evidence that children and young adults may also become vulnerable, especially those living in unemployed households and in economic deprivation.

What are the implications and is there any further research needed?

We found specific differences between countries in terms of mental health outcomes related to recessionary periods.

We found specific differences between countries in terms of mental health outcomes related to recessionary periods. It is possible that different socioeconomic contexts and response policies affect the extent of the risk factors that people face and therefore the extent of psychological stress. Further research should focus on what factors can buffer the effects of the recession on mental health.

It was also noticeable, that reliable research from countries badly hit by the economic recession is lacking. This is the case of Portugal for example.

Research from these countries would definitely improve our knowledge about the consequences of the recession on mental health that is useful to balance appropriate resources to protect the health and levels of wellbeing of people.

Conclusion

This research highlights that the economic recession may increase population’s psychological distress, especially among sub-groups such as unemployed people, those facing debts and economic deprivation, and their children.

We hope the findings of our study can help improve informed support measures to alleviate the effects of recession on mental health and help protect the most vulnerable people.

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