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Race, unemployment rate, and chronic mental illness: a 15-year trend analysis

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Before abating, the recession of the first decade of this century doubled the US unemployment rate. High unemployment is conceptualized as a stressor having serious effects on individuals’ mental health. Data from surveys administered repeatedly over 15 years (1997–2011) described changes over time in the prevalence of chronic mental illness among US adults. The data allowed us to pinpoint changes characterizing the White majority—but not Black, Hispanic, or Asian minorities—and to ask whether such changes were attributable to economic conditions (measured via national unemployment rates).


We combined 1.5 decades’ worth of National Health Interview Survey data in one secondary analysis. We took social structural and demographic factors into account and let adjusted probability of chronic mental illness indicate prevalence of chronic mental illness


We observed, as a general trend, that chronic mental illness probability increased as the unemployment rate rose. A greater increase in probability was observed for Blacks than Whites, notably during 2007–2011, the heart of the recession


Our results confirmed that structural risk posed by the recent recession and by vulnerability to the recession’s effects was differentially linked to Blacks. This led to the group’s high probability of chronic mental illness, observed even when individual-level social structural and demographic factors were controlled. Future research should specify the particular kinds of vulnerability that created the additional disadvantage experienced by Black respondents.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.

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Correspondence to Celia C. Lo.

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Lo, C.C., Cheng, T.C. Race, unemployment rate, and chronic mental illness: a 15-year trend analysis. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 49, 1119–1128 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-014-0844-x

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  • Racial/ethnic minorities
  • Trend study
  • Chronic mental illness
  • Unemployment rate