Financial Hardship and Mental Health
Do financial problems worsen mental health?
Posted August 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- In older adults with cancer, financial problems led to worse mental health, but worse mental health did not lead to financial problems.
- It is important to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, even if they might not lead to financial problems.
- To help address the high rates of mental health problems in this country, we may also need to address people’s financial problems.
For this post, I’m going to talk about something a little different from cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ll still talk about some myths but instead will focus on a topic so important to me that I’ve dedicated my research career to it: the effect of financial problems on health. Being a psychologist who has worked mostly with cancer patients, I focus on how financial problems affect mental health and physical health in people with cancer.
Which Comes First?
One question I frequently hear from other scientists is which comes first, financial problems or mental health concerns? Often this is followed by the belief that mental health concerns like depression and anxiety lead to more financial problems. Theoretically, both directions could work. Having financial problems is stressful and stress triggers depression and anxiety. Having depression and anxiety can make it harder to work or earn college degrees and this can lead to more financial problems. However, being a researcher, I wanted to see what the data said.
What Does the Research Show?
I found that the majority of studies of financial hardship in cancer were what’s called cross-sectional. This means the scientists only studied people at a single snapshot in time. Cross-sectional means we can’t tell which came first, mental health concerns or financial problems, because they are measured at the exact same time. Luckily, I found some data that could help answer which came first and published the results in the Journal of Aging and Health.
For this study, we used data from older adults with cancer who completed two surveys one year apart. This meant we could see if financial problems on the first survey predicted mental health on the second survey. We could also see if mental health on the first survey predicted financial problems on the second survey. If financial problems predicted later mental health, this would mean improving people’s economic standing could improve their mental health. If vice versa (mental health predicting financial problems), this would mean treating mental health could improve economic standing.
Ultimately, we found that financial problems predicted later mental health, but mental health did not predict later financial problems. It seems that financial problems trigger depression and anxiety. Now, this is only one study, and it is limited to older adults with cancer. These results need to be replicated. It is also still important to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, even if they might not lead to financial problems. But to help address the high rates of mental health problems in this country, we may also need to address people’s financial problems.
Jones, S., Nguyen, T., & Chennupati, S. (2020). Association of Financial Burden With Self-Rated and Mental Health in Older Adults With Cancer. Journal of aging and health, 32(5-6), 394–400. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264319826428