Social upheaval and the enduring impact on mental well-being

Timely: Psychology Research During COVID-19
Robert Krueger

Clinical psychologist Robert Krueger, PhD, can help us understand the impact of large-scale crises on the health and well-being of a society and its individuals, providing us with data that can drive decisions about public policy initiatives that help people in need while also being fiscally responsible.  The COVID-19 pandemic poses significant challenges to our society and our ability to respond because of how variable the impact has been across the country and within communities.  

Krueger and his colleague, Miriam Forbes, recently published a study about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession on the mental health of US citizens.  Krueger and Forbes analyzed data from Mid-Life in the United States (MIDUS), one of the most important and unique datasets available containing data on the psychological well-being of individuals over time.  MIDUS is funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA).  Krueger is a core MIDUS investigator and helps direct the MIDUS project. 

Krueger and Forbes were able to assess how individuals responded in 2003-04 regarding their psychological health, and in 2012-13 after the recession of 2008 had resolved.  What Krueger and Forbes discovered can help us today as we face the mental health-related consequences of the pandemic and the evolving financial fallout.

Krueger and Forbes found that overall - “population-level” - mental health improved from 2003-04 to 2012-2013. Although the 2008 Great Recession caused significant hardship across the country, “population level” psychological distress remitted once the crisis itself was resolved and the American people as a whole reported a better aggregate level of mental health.  

But these positive outcomes did not hold true for everyone;  significant numbers of individuals continued to report psychological distress years after the recession was over.  Individuals who experienced financial, job-related, and/or housing hardships continued to report psychological distress 3-4 years after the recession itself was over.  Regardless of an individuals’ socio-demographic positions prior to the Great Recession, single losses could cause lasting distress, while multiple losses were correlated with even higher levels of distress.  An individual’s membership in a specific socioeconomic demographic group was also correlated with ongoing psychological distress, such as those with low-education levels, those living alone, and women. The nation as a whole may have recovered, but too many individual citizens and too many socio-demographic groups were still adversely affected.

Krueger and Forbes conclude by suggesting that psychological distress can be mitigated by programs that provide a stronger, more dependable safety net for individuals.  Not only would such programs ease individual burdens, but they could also be a sound financial investment that may act to stimulate faster economic recovery.

Robert F. Krueger, PhD, is Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota.  He has authored numerous scholarly publications in areas such as Genetics, Health, Personality, Psychopathology, and Psychometrics, and has been named a Highly Cited Researcher by the Web of Science group.  He has been the recipient of major awards, including the Hoch Award from the American Psychopathological Association (APPA) and the Theodore Millon Award from the American Psychological Foundation (APF).   Miriam Forbes, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at MacQuarie University in Australia.  Together, Forbes and Krueger's collaborative research has been recognized with the Hugo G. Beigel award from the Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

Citation: Forbes, M. K., & Krueger, R. F. (2019). The Great Recession and Mental Health in the United States. Clinical Psychological Science, 7(5), 900–913.


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