New research finds that people living in the country’s unhappiest communities spend about a quarter of the month distressed.
The mental distress affects personal and professional life with economists finding that depression harms work productivity.
“This is a real concern not just in the United States, but across the world,” said Dr. Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural economics and regional economics at Penn State.
“Poor mental health can result in considerable economic costs, including losses of billions of dollars to lower productivity and this doesn’t even include the staggering personal costs of negative mental health and depression.”
In the study, researchers determined residents in the community with the poorest mental health on average reported they spent 8.3 days a month in a negative mood.
Conversely, people in high mental health areas reported they were in poor mental health only a little less than half of a day each month, according to the researchers.
Place apparently matters as living in the suburbs was found to be advantageous for overall mental health. Goetz said that suburban residents seem to be the happiest, compared to those who live in rural areas and inner cities.
After controlling for certain conditions, such as commute time, people who lived in suburbs tended to report the fewest poor mental health days, according to the researchers.
The study findings have been published in the online version of the journal Social Indicators Research.
Researchers discovered places where people felt more connected with the community also reported fewer poor mental health days.
“People who live in the suburbs are closer to jobs and all of the amenities that a big city can provide, but they’re also far enough away from the stress of the inner city,” said Goetz. “It may be that you don’t want to be too close to people, but you don’t want to be too far away either.”
Another important result was that people facing longer commutes experienced significantly more poor mental health days, regardless of whether they lived in a suburb, rural area, or inner city, according to Goetz.
Tighter knit communities also were happier, according to the study. People who live in communities with strong ties or high social capital have better general well-being and can rely on a network of support to help when stresses do arise.
“The more supported you are by the community, the happier you are, and the better you are able to cope with troubles,” said Goetz, who worked with Meri Davlasheridze, Ph.D., and Yicheol Han, Ph.D.
Researchers believe the answer to improving mental health is to decrease poverty rather than attempt to manage income inequality.
“When you live in poverty you might not care about how well-off your neighbors are, you just want to get out of poverty,” said Goetz.
“The research doesn’t suggest that income equality doesn’t matter, but it does indicate that the sting of actual poverty is far worse.”
To gather information on poor mental health days, the researchers studied census data and information from national surveys.
Perhaps the best source of information is the yearly Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone survey that includes information on how many days in a month participants would describe their mental health as poor.
Because the recent economic downturn could skew the mental health figures, the researchers used information from 2002 to 2008, a period before the recession.
The researchers also used information from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Census.
Future research may look at how improving the economic conditions and cohesion of a community could lead to more optimistic residents as an approach to curb drug and alcohol abuse in communities.
“As economists we talk a lot about financial costs, but often don’t consider the high personal costs that are incurred in some of these communities, including those associated with drug abuse and crime,” said Goetz.
“It’s gut-wrenching to hear stories of how substance abuse has hurt people and destroyed families and we’re eager to work with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services to research the problem and find ways to help these communities.”
Source: Penn State/EurekAlert