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  • December 25 2017








The aim of this study is to explore psychological strategies to reduce the impact of recession on mental health problems. Unemployment arising from recession was identified as being connected with health consequences. Tension is mounting everywhere as job cuts are on the increase, while many global corporate organizations are shutting down their operations and a few are declaring bankruptcy. Job loss and financial difficulties are associated with increased risk of mental illness and suicide in the general population. There was a growing body of evidence that unemployment can influence physical and mental health. Numerous psychological theories of unemployment were reviewed which try to explain the importance of work in overall psychological well-being of individuals. When recession and its accompanied increased unemployment extend over long periods of time, it affects negatively mental and physical health, psychological well-being and behaviour of individuals in the entire society. Likewise, the financial uncertainty also increases stress-related health concerns. Its consequences include anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, low self-esteem, learned helplessness, hopelessness, stress, tension, anger, hostility, phobia, eating problems, personality disorder, self harm just to mention but a few. Understanding better how recession influence health will allow the creation of public policy that benefits the population and interventions should also target on the unemployed. Therefore, this paper examines psychological strategies to reduce the impact of recession on mental health problems.

Key words: Psychological strategies, recession, mental health



It is obvious that majority of Nigerians have been factually living from hand to mouth, finding it actually hard to meet the numerous financial responsibilities. The Nigerian economy in recent times has moved out from bad to worse and this is revealed in the augmented rate of inflation (consumer price index) as prices of goods and commodities constantly sky rocket, global economic slowdown, rising unemployment, global fall in price of oil, fluctuating exchange rates, poor interest rates, negative changes in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), falling family incomes, and cutting back on essential necessities. Moreover, a lot of Nigerians have lost their jobs as a result of retrenchments and massive job cuts to keep companies hovering, which results in an increase in the rate of unemployment in the country. All these are indicators of recession in Nigeria not to mention the undulation effects on mental health of both children and adults in Nigeria.

A recession is defined as a period of negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters, as measured by a decline in GDP (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010). Thus, a recession is when the economy declines significantly for at least more than a few months such that there is fall in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), income, employment, manufacturing and retail sales. A recession is destructive because it is associated with widespread unemployment rates, financial difficulties, fall in consumer purchases, businesses going bankrupt as well as increased risk of mental illness, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideations.

Mental health is an indivisible fraction of public health and drastically affects countries and their human, social and economic wealth. According to WHO (2011), mental health is the psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioural adjustment. Mental health is also the subjective feeling of good emotional and social well-being and the capability to cope with life challenges and changes. This is manifest in one’s ability to work and study to full potential, cope with day-to-day life stresses, be involved in community and live life in free and satisfying manner. On the other hand, mental health problem occurs when one persistently feels down, tense, anxious, angry, helpless and hopeless for long periods of time. Mental health problems can influence how one thinks, feels, behaves and the ability to function every day, whether at school, work or in relationships. Mental health problems include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobia, schizophrenia, eating problems, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, suicidal ideation, self harm, and psychotic experiences.

Mental health problems affect individuals and society as a whole but the risk is higher among the poor, homeless, unemployed, persons with low education, victims of violence, migrants and refugees, indigenous populations, children and adolescents, abused women and the neglected elderly (WHO, 2011).

Economic recessions have been predictable to significantly affect the population’s psychological health and wellbeing, which pertains, in particular, to vulnerable groups of people (Modrek, Stuckler, McKee, Cullen & Basu, 2013). In countries that have been hardest hit by the latest recession, the living and working conditions have substantially worsened (Eurofound, 2013). Work became more uncertain and unemployment rates increased as a result of lose pace in global growth and resulting deterioration of the labour markets (Eurostat, 2013). Generally, according to the European Commission (2013), people are more fearful about losing their employment since competition for jobs is rising and finding work quickly is perceived as unlikely. It is estimated that labour markets will take time to improve even though there are prospects for economic recovery (Eurofound, 2013). Levels of poverty and social exclusion have worsened, mainly in groups that were already at risk (WHO, 2016). During this recession, more people have been reporting being at risk of being unable to cope with unexpected expenses and even facing difficulties with paying ordinary bills or buying food over the coming year (European Comission, 2013).

Two recent ecological studies conducted during the 2008 recession provide evidence of the beneficial effects of providing generous welfare benefits to people who are out of work. An analysis of US state-level suicide data showed that states providing more generous unemployment benefits experienced lower recession related rises in suicide than those providing less generous welfare support (Cylus, Glymour & Avendano, 2014). In an ecological analysis of data from 30 countries, there was a graded association between a country’s spending on unemployment protection and the effect of unemployment rises on suicide (Norström & Grönqvist, 2014).

Recession and mental health

No doubt, recession has given rise to pressures, threats and realism of losing jobs as well as purchasing ability of several Nigerians being lowered. The periods of recession however, may lead to stress, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, mental illnesses, instability, depression, suicide and increase in alcohol and drug abuse in order to cope with the stress as well as their antecedent psychological consequences irrespective of age, gender or social status. Supporting the above, researches (Stuckler, Basu, Suhrcke, Coutts & McKee, 2009; Katikireddi, Niedzwiedz & Popham, 2012; Chang, Stuckler, Yip & Gunnell, 2013; Corcoran, Grifflin, Arensman, Fitzgerald & Perry, 2015) have shown that during times of economic recession, the number of people affected by these and other problems rise and levels of depression, self-harm and suicide increase. Some people may be at higher risk of mental disorders due to adverse economic, environmental and social state of affairs as seen in Nigeria as this recession coagulates.

Recent research into suicides occurring during a period of recession indicated that those whose suicide appeared to be related to consequences of recession were largely still in work, cohabiting, with financial dependents but had no contact with secondary-care psychiatric and little recent contact with primary-care services (Coope, Donovan, Wilson, Barnes, Metcalfe, Hollingworth, Kapur, Hawton, & Gunnell, 2015).

Also, World Health Organization (2016) rightly stated that poverty is the leading factor associated with mental health. Poverty goes hand in hand with unemployment/underemployment, harsh living conditions, hopelessness, increased stress levels which inadvertently leads some people to increased use of psychoactive substances as a maladaptive coping mechanism and an increase in violence. All these factors will lead to an increase in the prevalence of mental disorders, especially depression, suicidal behaviour and psychoactive substance abuse as well. The situation obviously will lead a lot of people living in Nigeria to live with mental illnesses and suicidal behaviour and is likely to get worse given the prevailing situation.

Recession, Mental Health and Unemployment

During periods of recession, an economy normally experiences a reasonably high unemployment rate. More specifically, recession has brought in its wake enormous increase in the level of unemployment. This was revealed by Central Bank of Nigeria as reported by Akintoye (2003) that the national unemployment rate raised from 4.3% in 1970 to 6.4% in 1980. According to International Labour Organization (2010) report, more than 200 million people globally or 6% of the world’s workforce were without a job in 2002. Unemployment is the state and degree of joblessness, idleness, lower income, and feeling of worthlessness which leads to poverty within an economy. Unemployment is an enduring stress and frustrating situation that necessitates the person affected to acclimatize.  According to Kapuvári (2010), unemployment is a prolonged stress-generated factor which results not only in mental problems but also in psychosomatic diseases. According to Székely (2003), unemployment generates many psychological consequences such as low self-esteem, social stigma, change of self and identity, deterioration of family relationships, increase in divorce, material effects, changes in the daily routine, addictions, mental health problems such as high blood pressure, increase in suicide, lack of interest, deterioration of physical health, increase in alcohol consumption, heavy smoking to mention but a few. It also affects social living and political activities. Among the psychological effects of unemployment, depression and anxiety are important (Winefield & Tiggermann, 1990).

There are many personality factors which influence the lives of the unemployed. Schaufeli and Yperen (1992) rightly stated that, positive self-esteem helps the lives of the unemployed. Concerning the ego defense system, people with more mature defense mechanisms are less likely to become unemployed (Vaillant, 1995). Unemployed people with low self-esteem are more responsive in accepting any work opportunities and as such, have more chances of finding a job.

Unemployment can be perceived as a stressor (external stimulus that triggers stress to an organism which takes place as people adjust physically and psychologically to their physical environment) and psychosocial crisis (traumatic and stressful tweaking in the life of an individual). Unemployment poses a huge change and challenge to a person and prevents that psychosocial balance or state necessary for survival. Balance implies ability of an individual to integrate into society by having work and suitable adaptation strategies. Thus, any unexpected incident, like loss of job, can have a harmful effect on the previously formed balance. This can be explained by the fact that the person sustaining the loss would like to use his/her adaptation skills but there is nothing to adapt to. These conditions lead to the development of a psychosocial crisis. Suppose individuals have healthy earlier development which enabled them to learn the basic adaptation strategies, they would solve this problem and control this new situation involving a temporary social blankness. However, the crisis will be more serious if their earlier development was challenging.

Numerous theories are used to explain unemployment. It’s important to take a cursory look at them.

Psychological theories of unemployment

A lot of psychological theories relates to unemployment. Moore, Kapur, Hawton, Richards, Metcalfe, and Gunnel (2017) summarized them as follows:

Stages theory 1

The psychological response to unemployment according to Eisenberg and Lazarsfeld (1938) could be explained in terms of the following discrete stages:–– At first there is a shock, which is followed by an active hunt for a job, during which the individual is still optimistic and still maintains an unbroken attitude.

–– Secondly, when all efforts fail, the individual becomes pessimistic, anxious, and suffers active distress; this is the most crucial stage of all.

–– Finally, the individual becomes fatalistic and adapts to the new state but with a narrower scope and now with a broken attitude.

Stages theory 2

According to Arnetz et al. (1987), an unemployed person experiences different emotions in the different stages of unemployment. Stage 1is accompanied by danger of job loss; stage 2 is associated with the job loss itself; stage 3 is known as ‘honeymoon’ that is the first six months of the unemployment period without financial problems; stage 4 is the period of a difficult financial situation; stage 5 is called permanent unemployment period without hope of finding a job. In stage 1 and 2, the psychological and psycho-physiological stress level is very high, but the financial situation is not a problem yet. The social support is appropriate, and the unemployed person chooses rational coping strategies. The anxiety level is elevated in the period of the first stage, that is, danger of job loss. The person foresees the difficult financial condition, which stimulates maladaptive psycho-physiological responses, psycho-pathological reactions, depression or other harmful behaviours. At the moment, problems of the circulatory system and immune system are predicted. As for ego defense mechanisms, some people think and reason magically, archaically, and try to interpret incidents according to some higher power, such as God. Some do not have the courage to confront their unemployment situation; hence, they do not feel this phenomenon so deeply. Some may however describe this brief reactive psychosis as a consequence of unemployment. In addition to the growing serum cortisol level, the unemployed person can be characterised by weaker immune competence (Lázár 2006). In the third stage of unemployment, the person does not have any financial problems, the first shock disappears, and spiritual life is in harmony. This is a period without stress in which the person is characterized by physiological, social and mental balance. In the fourth stage, health deteriorates and stress levels are higher because of the poor financial situation of the unemployed person. Lack of self evaluation, behaviour problems and social isolation are important at this stage, which result in a poor quality of life. The last period of unemployment can be characterized by immune-suppressive phenomena (Lázár, 2006).

Frustration theory

According to this theory, frustration always leads to aggression and reactions to job loss can be explained by the frustration-aggression theory (Catalano, Dooley, Novaco, Wilson & Hough, 1993). Maladaptive behaviour patterns can emerge if an individual is not socialized properly. Therefore, conducive social environment and social support are important agents for personality development.

Life-span developmental theory

Erikson (1959) proposed eight stages, each with associated conflicts that need resolution for healthy psychosocial development. In relation to adolescence, some researchers have reported evidence suggesting that youth unemployment sets back healthy psychological development, as predicted by the theory as it prevents the acquisition of occupational identity (Gurney 1980).

Deprivation theory

This theory is based on Freud’s view that work represents our strongest link to reality. Jahoda (1982) applied it and proposed a theory that distinguishes between the manifest benefits of employment (earning a living) and the assumed latent benefits that serve to maintain links with reality. She identifies five latent benefits: time structure, social contacts, external goals, status and identity, enforced activity. Marienthal research of Jahoda and Lazarsfeld proved this theory (Bánfalvy 2003).

Agency restriction theory

The theory assumes that people are agents who strive to assert themselves, initiate and influence events and are intrinsically motivated. According to the agency restriction theory, the negative consequences of unemployment arise because they inhibit the exercise of personal agency (Fryer & Payne 1984). In short, agency theory assumes that people are fundamentally proactive and independent, whereas deprivation theory, by contrast, assumes them to be fundamentally reactive and dependent.

The vitamin model

This model assumes that nine features of the environment (opportunity for control, opportunity for skill use, externally generated goals, variety, environmental clarity, availability of money, physical security, opportunity for interpersonal contact, and valued social position) affect mental health in an analogous manner to the way vitamins affect physical health (Warr 1987).

Cognitive and emotional responses to unemployment its psychological implications

Evaluation of unemployment depends on the educational level of the unemployed person, self evaluation, and some contextual elements like gender, social support, age, income and employment status (Béland et al. 2002). Worry, fear, hostility, aggression, sorrow, depression, loneliness are among the emotional responses to unemployment. Sometimes the above factors have a special order. For instance, worry and fear appear mainly around job loss. These emotions can turn to anger if the unemployed person does not find a job. Hostility means that the employed person thinks unemployment is not his/her fault and the person blames another person. If the stress is permanent, the implication is that, the negative feelings turn inward and feelings of helplessness or low self esteem can appear. Further stress can lead to depression and loneliness. Unemployed people experience trifling activity levels and many feel withdrawn. Psychological strategies of tackling recession-induced mental problems to avoid deaths

Interventions to help mitigate the effect of unemployment on mental health are important and requires course of action in this period of recession.

Preventive interventions should gear towards reducing mental problems like depression, conduct disorders and feelings of hopelessness, aggression and delinquent behaviours, just to mention a few.

Nigerians should become more conscious of their personal stressors and learn to address them in healthier ways. They should also find humour in almost every situation in order to combat recession induced mental problems. Nourish one’s social life by connecting to peer support or other people to feel valued and confident about one or join groups like a book club or local community group to meet new people.

Psychosocial and behavioural interventions such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and family-based group intervention for “high risk” children and adults should be encouraged. This can be achieved through avoiding risky sexual practices, proper diet, getting enough sleep, adequate exercise, secure attachment, keeping physically active, meditation, perceived control over life outcomes, a sense of purpose, direction, social integration and optimistic outlook on life to avoid burn out.

Individuals should adopt talking treatments to provide a regular time and space to talk about personal thoughts and experiences and explore difficult feelings with a trained professional. This helps them deal with specific problem, improve on relationships, dvelop more helpful ways of living day-to-day and cope with upsetting memories or experiences.

Individuals should be encouraged to reorganize their lives with cognizance to the existing recession by cutting expenses, reducing unnecessary expenses but making sure also to look after one’s physical health.

People should be knowledgeable to take care of their emotional health, smile, freshen, use their social networks, ask for help but if all else fails, consult an expert or psychologist or nearest mental health professional. Emotionally rewarding social relationships and expression of positive emotions should be encouraged.

Through mass campaigns, Nigerians should totally stop the use of psychoactive substances such as excessive alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco and drug use because though they give temporary relief, they have more adverse effects than good. Alcohol warning labels should also be encouraged.


Government should support the citizenry through social welfare and other policy measures to help people keep an optimal mental health, support families that are struggling, retain their jobs and communicate to people on efforts being made to topple recession.

            There should be government spending on active labour market programmes and unemployment protection schemes to counter the effects of recession on the populace.

            There should be training for teachers and parents on stress management and to also detect mental health problems and facilitate appropriate interventions.

            Government should provide interventions in schools to improve life skills, pro-social behaviour, scholastic performance, self-esteem, include a life-skills curriculum and overall climatic conditions conducive for effective learning.

            Adequate counseling should be encouraged in schools to prevent aggressive behaviours, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations and substance abuse among students so as to help them cope better.

            Government should provide community mental health teams to support people with mental health problems living in the community. A psychologist, counsellor, social worker, occupational therapist, community psychiatric nurse and community support worker should make up the team while a member will be appointed as care coordinator, to care and keep in regular contact.

Loss of job and financial difficulties are associated with increased risk of mental illness and suicide in the general population. Interventions targeting the unemployed might help reduce these effects.


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