The negative effects of income inequality on mental health

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

In 2011 British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett released the second edition of their book “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.” It contained new evidence and a response to their critics. The authors studied levels of trust, mental illness, life expectancy, infant mortality, educational achievement, teen births, homicides and incarceration rates. 

Among selected industrialized countries the authors found that the U.S. performed the worst on all nine indicators, and that the most consistent predictor was economic inequality. Significantly enough, the more equal American states had better results on these issues.

In their new book “The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity, and Improve Everyone’s Wellbeing,” Wilkinson and Pickett have gathered more data about inequality’s negative effect on mental health.  They conclude that “inequality eats into the heart of our immediate, personal world, and the vast majority of the population are affected by the ways in which inequality becomes the enemy between us.”

In a 2010 paper Wilkinson and Pickett found that only 10 percent of Japanese and Germans suffered from some form of mental illness, while 20 percent of those in the United Kingdom and 25 percent of Americans did so. The Japanese and Germans are significantly more equal than Americans, with the British less so. 

Our authors cite research that showed that “in 1980, 4 percent of Americans suffered a mental disorder associated with anxiety, today half do.” Between 2007 and 2017 the number of Americans receiving Social Security Disability benefits due to a mental disorder increased 2.5 times.

A survey by the World Health Organization revealed that “the life-time prevalence of any mental disorder was 55 percent in the U.S., 49 percent in New Zealand, 43 percent in the Netherlands, 33 percent in Germany, but only 20 percent in Nigeria and 18 percent in China.” The criterion here was wealth and not necessarily income inequality.

Young people are also suffering. In Britain, since 2011, there has been a 68 percent rise in rates of self-harm among girls aged 13 to 16, and 58 percent of British teachers believe that there is a mental health crisis in their schools. From 2010 to 2015 there was a 36 percent increase in depressive episodes among American adolescents. School bullying is also much more prevalent in unequal countries.

Research has shown that status anxiety is much higher in unequal countries, and one study revealed that “people of lower status in hierarchies have higher levels in their blood of a clotting factor called fibrinogen, implying that their bodies are constantly on high alert to heal potential wounds.” 

Anxiety has been found to cause depression, drug addiction, and increases in suicidal thoughts, narcissism and schizophrenia. Excessive drug use correlates tightly with economic inequality all over the world.

Most people do not realize that narcissism is categorized as a mental illness in psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistics Manual. From 1982 to 2006, psychologists administered the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to thousands of American college students, and they found that there was a 30-percent increase in the display of narcissistic symptoms. Two questions especially caught my eye: “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” and “I can live my life any way I want to.”

Wilkinson and Pickett report an ever increasing “defensive, narcissistic presentation of self” in unequal societies, and a reviewer from The Guardian remarks that “we risk creating a society of mini-Trumps all clawing at one another’s hairpieces.” 

Trump certainly epitomizes this description of narcissistic people: “they tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism, and favor self-promotion over helping others.” Narcissists undermine the social fabric of those around them, but the one in the White House has upset economic and diplomatic relations throughout the world.

Those who say that inequality is natural and preferable, because it induces people to try their best to move up the latter has been proved to be wrong. Most European countries have a higher social mobility rate than the U.S. does. While only 25 percent of Americans born in the lowest economic 20 percent move out of the bottom, a full 40 percent of Danes do.  

The most alarming statistic is increased mortality rates for American men without a college degree ages 45-54. They are dying because of drug and alcohol abuse, and their suicide rate is eight times the national average. 

A reviewer from The Economist magazine observes: “The world’s richest large country, the city on a hill, seems to be coming apart.”

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.  Read more on inequality at Email him at [email protected].

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