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Economy Recovers but Not Mental Health

New research from the SDSU Graduate School of Public Health shows that America’s mental health is not recovering along with the economy.
To the surprise of investigators, the number of psychological distress-related searches continues to be high even as the economy bounces back.
To the surprise of investigators, the number of psychological distress-related searches continues to be high even as the economy bounces back.

Does this economy still have you singing the blues? You’re not alone, according to new findings from San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health research professor John W. Ayers. Though Wall Street reached record highs on Friday, and the jobs report looks better than it has since 2009, America’s mental health may not be doing as well.

“Even as the economy improves, the nation’s mental health continues to falter, with mental health concerns remaining near a 10-year high” said Ayers, whose groundbreaking research uses digital detection to spot trends in mental illness and health behaviors.

“Public health surveillance remains underfunded, so scientists have not had the data to understand the Great Recession's impact on mental health — until now,” said Ayers whose team updated findings published last year to see if mental health is improving along with the economy. 

For the original study, published by The Journal of Affective Disorders in 2012, Ayers and a team of scientists from Johns Hopkins, University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, and University of Georgia, monitored Google searches indicative of mental health concerns. They focused on searches like “depression symptoms” or “signs of anxiety” — what clinicians call psychological distress — from 2004 through 2010 in the United States.

During that time, Google searches for psychological distress surpassed 1,000,000 per month, 300,000 of which may be attributable to specific changes in the economy. For instance, a 1-percent increase in mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures was associated with a 16-percent increase in psychological distress-like searches the following month.

Unemployment and underemployment had similar impacts, with psychological distress-related searches increasing by 6 percent and 2 percent for each increase of 1 percent. 

To the surprise of investigators, the number of psychological distress-related searches continues to be high even as the economy bounces back.

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In this figure, the blue line represents the monthly U.S. psychological distress-related Google search volume normalized to the maximum search proportion.

Longtime collaborator and study coauthor, Ben Althouse from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted: “Because the economy is constantly changing, we can easily integrate these novel data streams into public health and public policy to ensure that America’s health remains central in economic debates.”

Using additional Google query trends, Ayers and colleagues recalculated the data on Friday to include the recent months of economic recovery.

In the last six months, psychological distress-like Google searches were equivalent to their peak during the height of the recession in 2009, and continue to be about 40 percent higher than just before the recession.

"Considering that a study published in the British Medical Journal recently associated psychological distress with increased mortality, these trends are very troubling," said Ayers.

Harvard psychiatrist and economist James Rosenquist, who was not affiliated with the study, said, “In mental health we recognize the effects of trauma can last years, recessions may be similar. Does an 18-month recession mean five years of poor mental health? It certainly looks that way.”

“It will take more than an improving economy to right the nation’s mental health” said Ayers. “Sequestration policies that reduce access to mental health treatment are the exact opposite of what we should be doing politically right now. Hopefully policy makers can use our new trends to more appropriately allocate mental health improving resources.”   

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