Depression is a pervasive and debilitating mental health disorder that affects more than 300 million people, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide. This week, we take a look at how social and economic inequality contributes to depression. See last week’s post here.
Large income gaps in a community can make people feel impoverished, even when they may not be poor by economic standards. When individuals attempt and fail to achieve socio-economic success, they often blame themselves, leading to feelings of shame, hopelessness, and demotivation — all risk factors for depression. Income inequality may also decrease social cohesion, leading to poor protection of those most vulnerable, consequently increasing their social exclusion and isolation.
As part of a 2018 meta-analysis, researchers analyzed 26 studies on societal income levels and respective prevalences of depression. Results found that:
On a national level, policies that limited access to healthcare, healthy food, education, and public transport, as well as those that led to increased pollution levels, were the most significant contributors to poor physical health and increased risk of depression.
On a local level, researchers had two theories as to the correlations between inequality and respective rates of depression. The first was that people with fewer resources felt socially defeated and/or status anxiety from living in such close proximity to those better off. The second was that inequality was eroding social capital by reducing social interaction, trust, and cooperation and that this was promoting social isolation and loneliness.
On an individual level, researchers felt that psychological stress related to the other two levels were the biggest contributors to the increases seen in a person’s risk of depression.
Other research has found that women in unequal societies have a significantly higher risk for depression than their male counterparts. In one study that analyzed survey data from 34,653 U.S. adults, results showed that women living in states with the broadest income ranges, like New York and the District of Columbia, were nearly twice as likely to experience depression compared to those in more equal states such as Utah and Alaska.