Could the economy be making you sick?

Marcus Pickett

It’s no surprise that the struggling economy is draining bank accounts and job prospects. Yet it also could be draining your health. Increased stress, the loss of employer group insurance coverage and the inability to pay for care may be feeding an increase in mental health issues and motivating Americans to delay care.

Could the economy be making you sick?
Could the economy be making you sick?

Skipping needed care

One of the most direct and immediate results of lost income is less money to spend on health care. According to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, about three-fourths of the consumers it surveyed say the economic downturn has affected how much they spend on care — 25 percent acknowledged they had skipped seeing a doctor altogether despite being sick or injured. A bad job market leaves people particularly vulnerable because a job loss often leads to loss of insurance coverage. The uninsured are two times as likely to skip needed health care when sick or injured, according to the Deloitte Center.

Financial circumstances also seem to be limiting consumers’ health care options.

Of the Deloitte Center survey respondents who switched doctors or medical professionals in 2011, 14 percent did so because a change in their insurance, 9 percent wanted a doctor who charged lower fees, and 6 percent found that their doctors no longer accepted their insurance. Likewise, 43 percent of survey respondents cited the cost of services as an important factor when choosing a hospital, and 68 percent of respondents said the cost of services would be an important factor in choosing a hospital for health care services in the future.

This link between personal finances and health care spending works the other way around as well. The Deloitte Center reports that 63 percent of the consumers it surveyed say their monthly health care spending limits their household’s ability to pay for essentials like housing, groceries, fuel and education.

Stress and depression

The inability to pay for basic necessities, find a job and pay for a family’s health care needs often leads to stress, depression and other mental health conditions. First Command Financial Services reports that 35 percent of middle-class Americans said in 2010 that they or someone in their household has experienced increased stress as a result of economic troubles over the past year.

Different people have different ways of coping with economic turmoil. But prolonged financial stress can lead to depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviors and substance abuse, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Warning signs that financial problems are harming your mental health include persistent sadness or crying, excessive anxiety, lack of sleep or constant fatigue, excessive irritability, increased drinking, illicit drug use (including abuse of medications), difficulty paying attention, apathy and not being able to function at work or school, according to SAMHSA.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting such symptoms, SAMHSA recommends the following tips for getting through a bout of financial stress:

  • Strengthening bonds with family and friends
  • Devoting time to hobbies and physical exercise.
  • Developing new skills that could lead to employment opportunities.
  • Seeking help from a mental health professional.

The effect of health care reform

Whether or not they are caused by the economy, mental health issues can be expensive to treat if you don’t have insurance. Even if you do have insurance, your plan may not offer coverage for counseling and treatment.

The health care reform law requires that all insurance plans start including mental health care and substance abuse treatments in 2014. In the meantime, current federal law sets up requirements for group insurance plans that offer mental health insurance benefits. Insurers and group plans aren’t required to offer mental health coverage. However, if they do, mental health benefits must be equal to physical health benefits.

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