Research on the effect of the recession on mental health

by Sep 24, 2012Poverty, Stress0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
We are seeing some very worrying mental health trends begin to emerge in response to the current economic situation. A recent article in the British Medical Journal  [1] published by researchers from the Universities of Liverpool, Cambridge and the London school of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has found that suicide rates in the last few years have bucked the trend of the previous 20 years and have started to rise. This study interestingly looked at 93 regions of the UK and found that the areas experiencing the highest levels of unemployment were the ones where suicide rates had increased the most. For every 10% increase in unemployment there was a 1.4% increase in suicide rates, which in the UK amounted to 1000 suicides. There was even a slight improvement in areas where employment rates briefly picked up, again suggesting a causal link. The same link between unemployment and suicide rates was also found in a recent study in Finland [2].

It is not just the unemployed who are suffering though. A recent study by the Mental Health Foundation found a 7%  increase just in the last year in the number of people treated at hospitals in England for stress, up 410 from the 6370 of last year. The study suggests that workers are under terrible stress at work, and the admission rates were of people aged between 18 and 60.

Concerns about money, debt, housing and the fear of unemployment were pinpointed as key factors in this worrying trend

Yet another recent study, this time by the King’s Fund, has added to these alarm bells  This study showed how the health divide between the least and best well-off in the UK had widened considerably in recent years, this divide bringing with it massive disparities in health outcomes, mental health outcomes, longevity and quality of life. While the better off in fact seem to be getting healthier, which meant that overall health outcomes had improved, those in more adverse circumstances are subject to increasing health risks Michael Marmot, who has undertaken extensive studies of the pernicious effects on both physical and mental health of rising inequality levels [3], earlier this year at the Westminster Health Forum seminar on  Health Inequalities 2012 reiterated findings that countries which were more equal and had higher public spending had far better health outcomes, stating “The worst male life expectancy in London is in Tottenham. What a surprise the riots began there, not in Kensington and Chelsea,”

A fascinating article in the new York Times has pulled together  a lot of the recent evidence of the massive reduction of life expectancy of poor white people in the US. No longer can children expect to live longer than their parents, at least if they are bottom of the pile, and it seems that widening inequality levels are the likely causative.candidate .  The causes of death included many with clear psychological aspects, such as increases in overdoses and smoking, and others which are firmly linked, such as the higher amount of deaths from metabolic syndrome (heart disease, diabetes etc), which is very related to stress levels( see graph for diabetes ).

Of course with increased poverty and other life stressors we see children suffer too, as parenting is more stressful. Analysis of child mental health has shown that child mental health disorders occur in direct relation to socioeconomic status, with the poorest in the population having higher proportions of children with every mental health issue, bar autism.  Another recent study showed that living in poverty has a very bad effect on children’s cognitive skills and that, looking at babies at 6, 9 and 12 months, those who were from poorer homes had lower concentration and reduced attention spans [4].  This is all happening at the same time as services are contracting in the face of cuts, with these cuts apparently being just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can expect.

[1]   B. Barr, D. Taylor-Robinson, A. Scott-Samuel, M. McKee, and D. Stuckler, ‘Suicides associated with the 2008-10 economic recession in England: time trend analysis’, BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 345, 2012.

[2]        N. Mäki and P. Martikainen, ‘A register-based study on excess suicide mortality among unemployed men and women during different levels of unemployment in Finland’, J Epidemiol Community Health, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 302–307, Jan. 2012.

[3]        M. Marmot, Status Syndrome: How Your Social Standing Directly Affects Your Health. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.

[4]        M. W. Clearfield and K. E. Jedd, ‘The Effects of Socio‐Economic Status on Infant Attention’, Infant and Child Development, 2012.

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