Background and aim: Referring to the ecosocial theory and utilising the ‘natural experiment’ setting provided by the global recession at the beginning of 1990s, the aim of our study was to analyse the short- and long-term associations between trade and mental health in young students followed until mid-adulthood.
Method: The study was based on two prospective cohort studies, the older and the younger Northern Swedish Cohort which both consisted of all pupils in a middle-sized industrial town in Northern Sweden. At age 21, the younger cohort entered the labour market during the deep recession of the early 1990s, while the older cohort entered the labour market during the boom of the 1980s. Both cohorts were followed up with a high response rate in mid adulthood. For this study, all students were selected at age 21.
Results: At age 21, those who studied during recession had more depressive and functional somatic symptoms than those who studied during boom. The cohort differences did not remain over age: by the follow-up in early middle age the differences between the cohorts were non-significant, most notably due to decreased depressive symptoms in the younger cohort and increase of functional somatic symptoms in the older cohort.
Conclusions: The short-term mental health consequences of the business cycle seem to be more extensive than limited only to those who are unemployed, even though the possible long-term consequences seem to be more complex. Thus, the macrolevel had a great short-term impact on the individual level in relation to the microlevel setting of university/school. The chronosystem was also of major importance. Future research would benefit from taking the context into account.
Although those who study at age 21 may be considered as a relatively healthy and advantaged population group in the long run, our results provide evidence for the significance of recession for mental health, not only among those suffering from concrete job loss but across all population groups. Students’ mental health should be given high priority during times of financial crisis. Mental health services for students should receive increased resources during times of recession. Even if young people may be reluctant to study after school during a financial crisis, it seems to be beneficial for their mental health in a long-term perspective. So, for them poorer mental health does not seem to be dangerous in the long run. Students surveys should pay special attention to understanding the relation between macroeconomic conditions and individual mental health symptoms.