The Great Recession’s Lasting Mental Health Effects

We’re already into the next recession, but psychologists are still working to understand the mental health implications of the 2008 financial crisis.

Previous research has made it clear that the economic fallout from that crisis came with a large psychological cost, and a new study in Clinical Psychological Science shows how lasting the 2008 recession’s impact may have have been.

In the study, a pair of psychology researchers analyzed a long-term survey that collected data from over 3,000 adults in the United States in the years 2003-2004, then again in 2012-2013. Since those years straddled the 2008 economic collapse, the researchers were able to use the data to learn about how people’s experiences during the recession related to their subsequent mental health.

First, the good news: overall, the mental health of people surveyed seemed to improve over the course of the 10-year period. Perhaps that’s not such a surprise as people’s mental health often does change for the better with age.

Before the celebrations begin, though, that happy news came with a major caveat: people who were affected by the recession tended to experience the opposite pattern, with sustained deterioration in their mental health.

That was true across three different types of impacts from the recession that the researchers considered:

  • Financial impacts such as missing a payment or having to cut back on spending
  • Work impacts such as losing a job, taking a job below one’s experience level, or having to start an additional job
  • Housing impacts such as missing a rent payment, being threatened with foreclosure, or moving in with someone else to save money

The mental health changes that appeared following these impacts included depression and anxiety. And by definition, since the data was collected in 2012-2013, they were evident years after the recession itself. The researchers did note, however, that the effect seemed to be larger in some socioeconomic and demographic groups than others.

Overall, these findings are an important reminder that in times of economic recession, mental health support becomes all the more critical. Economic slowdowns come with a real psychological cost in people’s lives, and acknowledging that cost is necessary to take steps against it.