An undesirable consequence of the COVID-19 mitigation efforts has been the sudden and sharp plunge of a recently record setting, healthy economy. At least 46 states have shut down non-essential businesses in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Those closures have sent an additional 22 million Americans to claim unemployment benefits and the numbers of unemployed continue to grow.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 25% of workers say it’s likely they will lose their jobs or be laid off in the next 12 months. That compares to only 8% who felt that way a year ago. Those feelings of pending doom are even more dire for people of color. 32% of Americans of color felt it likely they would lose their jobs, compared to 21% a year ago.
It’s not hard to see why workers are stressed over their job prospects. Many of the small businesses shut by government order will never reopen. According to a survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a quarter of small businesses are two months or less away from going out of business.
Economic downturns and mental health are linked
Conventional wisdom has been that when economic downturns create high unemployment and declines in living standards, mental health issues increase. Suicides, binge drinking, depressive disorders, emotional and behavioral disturbances in children, as well as other indicators of the mental health of a society all become more pervasive. Furthermore, poorer mental health frequently equates to poorer overall health.
A recent meta-analysis of over 20,000 studies examining the association of economic factors on mental health supported these conclusions. In this research, Frasquilho¹ et al found that economic downturns have a substantial impact on the prevalence of common mental issues, as well as more serious concerns such as suicidal behaviors and substance abuse. In turn, these issues impact business productivity, health care costs, crime, and violence. The evidence was consistent that economic recessions and mediators such as unemployment, income decline, and unmanageable debts are significantly associated with poor mental wellbeing, increased rates of common mental disorders, substance-related disorders, and suicidal behaviors.
Effects on resiliency can be long lasting
It turns out that economic hardship is a robust predictor of mental health challenges. Financial insecurity creates lasting and negative effects on the capacity for resiliency during future hard times too, according to Steven Schlozman, MD, writing in The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.
“Depression is made worse by environmental factors, and depression makes the ability to tolerate adverse environmental factors more difficult,” Scholzman goes on to say. When things get rough, psychological suffering becomes one big nasty circle. You feel worse, you react poorly because of how badly you feel, and reacting badly makes everything around you function more poorly.”
Sadly but importantly, this research may be extremely relevant to our current situation. These findings should act as a guide to public policy makers, benefit managers, and business leaders. Their decisions can help marshal resources to support mental health at a time when such resources are needed more than ever.
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¹ BMC Public Health. 2016; 16: 115
Published online 2016 Feb 3. doi: 10.1186/s12889-016-2720-y
Mental health outcomes in times of economic recession: a systematic literature review