OBJECTIVE: To assess short-term differences in population mental health before and after the 2008 recession and explore how and why these changes differ by gender, age and socio-economic position.
DESIGN: Repeat cross-sectional analysis of survey data.
PARTICIPANTS: Representative samples of the working age (25-64 years) general population participating in the Health Survey for England between 1991 and 2010 inclusive.
MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Prevalence of poor mental health (caseness) as measured by the general health questionnaire-12 (GHQ).
RESULTS: Age-sex standardised prevalence of GHQ caseness increased from 13.7% (95% CI 12.9% to 14.5%) in 2008 to 16.4% (95% CI 14.9% to 17.9%) in 2009 and 15.5% (95% CI 14.4% to 16.7%) in 2010. Women had a consistently greater prevalence since 1991 until the current recession. However, compared to 2008, men experienced an increase in age-adjusted caseness of 5.1% (95% CI 2.6% to 7.6%, p<0.001) in 2009 and 3% (95% CI 1.2% to 4.9%, p=0.001) in 2010, while no statistically significant changes were seen in women. Adjustment for differences in employment status and education level did not account for the observed increase in men nor did they explain the differential gender patterning. Over the last decade, socio-economic inequalities showed a tendency to increase but no clear evidence for an increase in inequalities associated with the recession was found. Similarly, no evidence was found for a differential effect between age groups.
CONCLUSIONS: Population mental health in men has deteriorated within 2 years of the onset of the current recession. These changes, and their patterning by gender, could not be accounted for by differences in employment status. Further work is needed to monitor recessionary impacts on health inequalities in response to ongoing labour market and social policy changes.