Recessions Do Not Inevitably Lead to Worse Mental Health

Hands using scissors to remove the word "can't" to read "I can do it" on a slip of paper, MCCAIG

Research has shown that recessions can have negative consequences on mental health. However, few studies have looked at how personal beliefs can affect this relationship. This MIDUS study compared the mental health of participants before and after the Great Recession, which began in 2007 and was marked by a housing crisis, plummeting stock markets, and widespread economic hardship. Researchers looked at whether participant’s sense of personal control affected their mental distress after experiencing recession related hardships.

Sense of control is the extent to which one feels their chances in life are under their own control. Those low in sense of control feel powerless to affect what happens to them, and are more likely to believe that fate or circumstance controls their lives. Sense of control was measured by how much respondents agreed with 12 questions, such as:

    • “I can do just about anything I really set my mind to.”
    • “What happens in my life is often beyond my control.”

Recession hardship was measured by how many problems were experienced by participants in three areas:

    • financial stresses (ran out of unemployment benefits)
    • housing stresses (evicted from home)
    • work stresses (had to take a job below their education level).

Mental distress was measured by how often participants said they had negative feelings during the last 30 days, such as:

    • feeling nervous or hopeless
    • feeling so sad nothing could cheer them up.

Results showed that:

    • Those who experienced more recession related hardships experienced more mental distress.
    • As the number of hardships increased, sense of control decreased.
    • The association between recession hardship and distress was magnified among those who experienced large declines in sense of control.
    • However, those who experienced an increase in sense of control, even after facing hardship, did not experience the expected increase in mental distress.

Although sense of control has been viewed as a stable personality trait, this study underscores it is important to look at changes in sense of control. More research is needed to learn why some individuals are able to improve their sense of control, particularly during turbulent times. The authors note the following possibilities:

    • Some people may have more effective coping strategies or highly supportive relationships that help them believe they can overcome difficult circumstances.
    • Those in conditions of economic security and privilege may be able to maintain their belief in personal control during hard times more easily than those living in conditions of disadvantage and adversity.
    • Public policies that improve chances of re-employment, such as making skill training available to those who have lost jobs, may be helpful in keeping people from feeling they are losing control.

Overall, the authors note that the negative mental health consequences of recessions are not inevitable and can be prevented. The challenge is to better understand how to do so.

Source: Koltai, J., & Stuckler, D. (2020). Recession hardships, personal control, and the amplification of psychological distress: Differential responses to cumulative stress exposure during the U.S. Great Recession. SSM – Population Health, 10, 100521.

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