Is Wealth Inequality Causing The Rising Rates Of Mental Illness In The US?

By Lindsey Weedston 08/20/19

A review of 27 different studies on the topic found that countries with more wealth inequality had three times as many mental illness diagnoses than those with less.

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a man hoarding his wealth
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Increasing levels of wealth inequality in the U.S. could be driving rising rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems, according to a report published by Truthout.

The article cites data collected by the United Nations that backs up the existence of a phenomenon many psychologists refer to as “status anxiety”—chronic stress caused by the awareness of class divides in a society.

“More unequal societies make us more aware of class and status—people become more concerned with issues of superiority and inferiority and worry more about how others judge them,” says social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson. “Social life becomes more stressful and people start to withdraw from it. As inequality undermines confidence and feelings of self-worth, mental health inevitably deteriorates.”

Societal Health

Wilkinson and his partner Kate Pickett wrote extensively on this issue in their 2009 book The Spirit Level. In the text, they argue that nations with more intense wealth gaps suffer from more issues across all indicators of societal health. This includes mental and physical health as well as crime, drug use, infant mortality rates, community connection and trust, and childhood wellbeing.

These issues affect everyone in a society—rich and poor.

Pickett and Wilkinson published a follow-up book in 2018, The Inner Level, looking specifically at mental health under this phenomenon.

“In less equal societies we see more [diagnoses of] depression… narcissistic personality disorder, schizophrenia—a wide range of worse mental health outcomes,” said Wilkinson. “Mental illness is [often] triggered or exacerbated by issues to do with dominance and subordination.”

A review of 27 separate studies on the topic also found that countries with more wealth inequality had three times as many mental illness diagnoses than those with less wealth inequality.

The differences are striking even when you compare individual U.S. states with different levels of wealth inequality. According to Wilkinson, states with high class divisions have low levels of trust for their neighbors, with as little as 15% saying they felt they could trust others. In more equal states, that rises to “60 or 65%.”

The Racial Disparity

This is true for other forms of inequality as well, according to Indiana University Professor of Sociology Brea Perry. And those different inequalities overlap and change in nature depending on how you were born.

“So for example, although we know that there is a clear social gradient in mental health at each increasing level of education, Blacks get a lower return on their educational investment,” said Perry. “Put differently, social class is not nearly as protective of physical and mental health for Black Americans as it is for white Americans in terms of their physical and mental health. And that’s true across all kinds of outcomes. Marginalized groups tend not to see the health benefits of class advantage to the degree that white, cisgender, straight men do.”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston

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