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Health improves during recessions & depressions

I’ve heard of this argument before but the evidence here is strong. Across all age groups, for men and women, for both white and black people  and for all causes of death (except suicide) life expectancy in the US rose from 1920-1940 during every strong recession including the great depression.  It rose from 57.1 to 63.3 years on average.  Reasons? Perhaps less work, less stress, less booze and less smoking.  Conversely life expectancy fell during strong expansions.  During expansions the pace of work can become difficult.  Apparently this link between health and the business cycle has weakened in recent years – presumably because people are aware of the connection between excessive work and health.  Maybe we should all slow down a bit!

That suicide rates don’t follow the trends in other health indicators suggests that mental health problems might worsen during recessions as Andrew Leigh pointed out some time back.  It also suggests that mental health services and such things as ‘help lines’ should not be one of the budget cuts we seek to make during recessions. In fact, increased expenditure on mental health during recessions might be a sound countercyclical measure with strong ‘health’ side-benefits.

8 comments to Health improves during recessions & depressions

  • I can’t find it now but there’s a study which suggests that suicides go down in hard times like a depression and war.

  • conrad


    I think you’re thinking of the British data from WWII. I think that’s atypical. It’s also no doubt confounded, because if you are depressed in times of war, it’s far easier to take your frustrations out on the other side (and not necessarily come back).

  • robert

    Wish I could recall where I read this – Time magazine, I think – but apparently the suicide rate in Northern Ireland started increasing quite dramatically from about 1999 onwards, i.e. after the worst of the sectarian warfare had ended.

  • fxh

    that second post wasn’t me –weird

    although of course i do think you are wonderful harry

    especially your JWH for Sainthood campaign

  • fxh

    conrad no – i’m thinking of a 100 retrospective look at data in a book I had on suicide.

    the same book said that suicide rates didn’t vary much over 100 years or in different societies

    i’m inclined to the view it doesn’t vary much in any society or over time – that doesn’t lessen the tragedy for individuals and families but it does make me doubt the value of any “preventative” population based initiatives – I’d favour clinical initiatives and increased accessibility of services for individuals.

    what is recorded as suicide is also problematic- in wartime heroic sacrifice may be a substitute- there has been a good theoretical case made to count many single vehicle fatalities as suicide for one example

  • fxh

    hey that second post up there with my name is a spam spruik site for a “natural” depression site selling “natural” tablets. shonky shonk

  • hc

    FXH, It was a weird piece of spam but WordPress identified it as such. I overruled WP because I thought I had finanally found a friend in the blogosphere. The tears are rolling down my cheeks as I write this. I am getting a lot of this spam spuik stuff for smokeless tobaccos, drug rehab. Yours was the first I have seen that latched onto a contributor so I wasn’t sure.

  • conrad

    “the same book said that suicide rates didn’t vary much over 100 years or in different societies”
    Well it’s incorrect. There are huge differences in suicide rates across cultures, and it changes over time too. Don’t live in Eastern Europe! (I seem to remember there is data on the un site with all of this). There are also known changes even within smaller groups — I believe that if someone you know kills themselves, you are more likely to do it also — so you get within group effects in small social groups.

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