Depressive Symptoms Among US Adults During the Great Recession and Economic Recovery

Published in: The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 3–10 (March 2022)

Posted on RAND.org on July 07, 2022

by Annie Chen, Roland Sturm

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Background and Aims

We study the trajectory of depressive symptoms among US adults before, during, and after the 2008/2009 Great Recession.

Methods

We use repeated cross-sectional surveys of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2005 and 2018. Mental health is assessed with the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9), with the following categorization for depressive symptoms: none or mild (score 0–9), moderate or severe (score 10–27). A parallel time series was calculated from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) on self-reported number of days with poor mental health.

Results

NHANES data show a statistically significant increase in depressive symptoms from 2005/2006 to 2007/2008 (the beginning of the Great Recession), but there were no significant or consistent changes after 2007/2008. In particular, the deterioration in the adjusted predicted PHQ-9 scores occurred prior to the large increase in unemployment rate (2009/2010). As the macroeconomic situations improved and unemployment rates recovered, mental health did not return to the previous level. In the latest wave of NHANES (2017/2018), unemployment rates were at the lowest level over the analysis period; however, the adjusted predicted PHQ-9 scores were higher than that at the beginning of the Great Recession. Trends of PHQ-9 scores were similar across income groups—all groups had an increase in depressive symptoms after 2005/2006 and PHQ-9 scores were still high in 2017/2018 after controlling for sociodemographic status. Group with the lowest income had higher levels of depressive symptoms at every time point. BRFSS data shows no consistent changes in the number of days with poor mental health that parallel economic conditions.

Discussion

Depressive symptoms at the population level did not match the economic cycle before, during and after the Great Recession. Future research is needed to better understand the lack of correlation between population mental health and macroeconomic conditions.

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