The coronavirus crisis, paradoxically, may be an opportunity to find new sources of meaning. Psychological research on past financial disasters may offer guidance on how people will respond to the sudden economic calamity caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis has shuttered businesses and led to massive numbers of layoffs nearly overnight. As of April 2, Americans filed a record-breaking 6.6 million unemployment claims in one week, according to the Department of Labor (PDF, 743KB)
. The U.S. Federal Reserve estimated that 47 million people might lose their jobs in the second quarter of 2020, translating to a 32.1% unemployment rate. That would far overshoot the peak unemployment rate of the Great Recession (10% in October 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and even of the Great Depression (24.9% in 1933).Despite differences between this economic crisis and previous recessions, psychological research can provide some insight into the behavioral and mental health impacts of financial loss. Key findings include:
Mental health impacts can be long-lasting
An analysis of mental health data from the national, longitudinal Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study found an overall population trend for improved mental health after the Great Recession compared with before (Forbes & Krueger, Clinical Psychological Science, Vol. 7, No. 5, 2019). But this broad trend disguised inequities: Those who experienced personal hardships during the recession—whether financial, housing-related or job-related—showed an increase in panic attacks, excessive worry, depression and problematic substance use. These mental health affects persisted into 2013, well into the economic recovery.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is having rapid effects on the economy, with indications that we are entering another global recession,” says Miriam Forbes, PhD, a senior research fellow in psychology at the Center for Emotional Health at Macquarie University, who co-authored the research. “Many people are losing their jobs, experiencing financial strain and housing insecurity in the current climate. Our research suggests that all of these experiences increase risk for long-lasting declines in mental health, which can compound and prolong the economic costs of a recession through lost productivity and health-care utilization.”
Those mental health impacts will be uneven
Another look at MIDUS data comparing the mid-1990s to the post-Recession years of 2011 to 2014 revealed that mental health, like physical health, declined along socioeconomic lines (Goldman et al., PNAS, Vol. 155. No. 28, 2018). The study focused on non-Latino whites, a group of interest due to an increasing rate of suicides, drug overdoses and other so-called “deaths of despair.”
The study found that that white Americans in the 75th percentile or above in socioeconomic status showed almost no declines, and even some modest improvements, in mental health measures such as life satisfaction, well-being, positive and negative affect, and major depression. The lower a person’s socioeconomic status, the more likely a drop in mental health. Those in the 10th percentile, for example, saw the greatest increases in negative affect, and the greatest declines in positive affect and life satisfaction, as well as in psychological well-being.
Health inequalities may deepen
In other research using MIDUS data, the Great Recession was shown to widen the health gap between the haves and have-nots. When comparing adults from timepoints before (1995 to 1996) and after (2011 to 2014) the recession, psychologist Carol Ryff, PhD, and colleagues found poorer outcomes in general health, chronic conditions, body mass index, functional limitations and physical health symptoms for the population as a whole, despite population-wide gains in educational attainment post-recession (Kirsch et al., American Psychologist, Vol. 74, No. 7, 2019).
As with mental health, the data also showed that the hardships of the Great Recession were disproportionately borne by those with lower educational status. “These big national shocks hit the disadvantaged segment of society the hardest,” Ryff said.
Purpose in life may combat financial miseries
Combating the mental-health effects of a pandemic-induced financial crisis is no minor challenge. But the psychological literature does indicate sources of resilience. For example, eudaimonic well-being (which encompasses purposeful life engagement and personal growth) is a protective buffer against elevated levels of inflammation among those with low educational attainment, Ryff and her colleagues have found (Health Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 6, 2010).
The coronavirus crisis, paradoxically, may be an opportunity to find new sources of meaning, Ryff said. “It’s going to be incredibly important to follow profiles of social responsibility through this experience,” Ryff says.