Great Recession Left Many Americans With Lasting Mental Health Issues, Study Shows

WASHINGTON — The Great Recession put a massive dent in financial stability for millions Americans and led to a steep rise in unemployment, but for many, the effects damaged far more than just their bottom line. A new study shows that those who suffered hardship from the economic slowdown were more likely to experience a lasting decline in mental health, including anxiety, problematic drug use, and depression.

Researchers say these mental health issues were still evident years after the official end of the recession, but were obscured when studying trends in large, population-level datasets.

“Our study provides a new perspective on the impact of The Great Recession, showing that population-level analyses likely miss important patterns in the data,” explains lead researcher Miriam K. Forbes, in a release by the Association for Psychological Science. “By looking at individuals’ mental health and experiences of the recession, we could see a different picture.”

Forbes and her team examined economic and psychological data of Americans between ages 25 and 75 from 2003 to 2004 — three years before the Great Recession began in December 2007 — and then again from 2012 to 2013, which was three years after the slump officially ended in June 2009.

The researchers examined the participants’ symptoms of depression, panic disorders, and anxiety, as well as their symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse. Participants reported whether they experienced any of the recession-related negative outcomes, such as missed mortgages, excessive debt, losing a job, or losing a house to foreclosure while being surveyed in 2012 and 2013.

Overall, the prevalence of mental health outcomes remained the same or decreased slightly from 2003-2004 to 2012-2013. But when the researchers examined mental health outcomes in relation to the hardships the participants reported as a result of the Great Recession, they found relationships between each specific hardship and an increased likelihood of showing symptoms of generalized anxiety, panic, drug abuse, and depression.

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“Individuals who experienced even a single recession impact still had higher odds of nearly all of the adverse mental health outcomes we examined – including clinically significant symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety, panic, and problems with drug use – three years after the recession,” says Forbes, who began the research at the University of Minnesota and now works at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “And these odds were higher still in specific sociodemographic groups who suffered marked losses during the recession or without a strong safety net.”

The data also shows that adults who didn’t go to college were more likely to develop anxiety symptoms related to their jobs. People who didn’t live with a spouse or partner were more likely to use drugs as a result of housing-related hardships. The authors point to both of these groups being prone to lacking a safety net when the Great Recession occurred, partly due to fewer qualifications for job stability or only relying on a single income.

Conversely, well-to-do adults who were dealt financial blows saw an increase in anxiety symptoms related to housing, and were more prone to drug use as a result of money fears or struggles. Many of those individuals were forced to move in with friends or family to save or sold their possessions to stay afloat.

“These findings may be particularly pertinent given some indications that the next period of economic contraction might begin as early as 2020,” warns Forbes.

The study is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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