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Health Series: Research Spotlight

Recessions linked to suicides and mental health problems, says study

City study reviews a total of 41 studies to see the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on health outcomes

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

A recent study from academics at City, University of London has shown that the 2008 recession in Europe was associated with adverse health outcomes, as the crisis was linked to an increase in the number of suicides and mental health problems.

However, in the review of studies the City authors also warn that most published research on this topic had a substantial risk of bias and therefore results need to be cautiously interpreted. The paper was published in The BMJ.

In 2008, Europe entered a period of unprecedented financial crisis following a global economic downturn. Yet despite growing interest in the impact of the crisis on the health of populations, the evidence so far has been fragmented.

To further investigate the effect, a team of researchers based at City, University of London – which included Dr Charitini Stavropoulou and Dr Divya Parmar - and Stanford University in California analysed studies reporting on the impact of the European financial crisis on health outcomes, published from January 2008 to December 2015.

A total of 41 studies met the inclusion criteria and were analysed, the vast majority focused on two countries - Spain and Greece. The main health outcomes that these studies explored were suicides and mental health problems.

All studies were assessed for risk of bias. Of these, 29 (73%) were deemed to be at high risk of bias, nine (23%) at moderate risk of bias, and only two at low risk of bias, limiting the conclusions that could be drawn.

Although there were differences across countries and groups, there was some indication that suicides increased during the financial crisis, particularly among men.

Studies looking at mental health problems found similar increases, but these results were more mixed. Women seemed to be more affected by mental health problems than men.

Studies focusing on mortality seemed to show a different picture, with overall mortality not being affected or even declining during the crisis years. It has been argued that this was probably due to fewer working hours and healthier lifestyles during years of economic difficulties.

There was also some evidence that the health of immigrants, especially those who had illegal status and lacked social security, deteriorated much more during the crisis than that of natives. Evidence on self-rated health and other indicators was mixed.

Speaking about the findings, Dr Charitini Stavropoulou, a Senior Lecturer in Health Management in the School of Health Sciences at City, University of London, said:

“These results need to be interpreted with caution, but overall the financial crisis in Europe seems to have had an adverse effect on health, especially when it comes to suicides and mental health problems. However, as there were biases associated with the studies we reviewed there is a clear need for better empirical studies, especially for those focused on identifying the mechanisms that can mitigate the adverse effects of health caused by the crisis.”

In a linked editorial, researchers at the University of Liverpool agree that recessions can harm health, but argue that a government’s response can exacerbate the damage.

Read the full paper

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