The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) is a standardized phone survey about health-related behaviors, carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
One question asks: “Now thinking about your mental health, whicjh includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?”
David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald focus on this question in "Trends in Extreme Distress in the United States, 1993–2019" (American Journal of Public Health, October 2020, pp. 1538-1544). I particular, they focus on the share of people who answer that their mental health was not good for all 30 of the previous 30 days, who they categorize as in a condition of "extreme distress." Here are some patterns:
This graph shows the overall and steady rise for men and women from 1993-2019.
Here's a breakdown for a specific age group of those 35-54 years of age, with a simple breakdown by education and by ethnicity.
This kind of survey evidence doesn't let a researcher test for causality, but it's possible to look at some correlations. The authors write: "Regression analysis revealed that (1) at the personal level, the strongest statistical predictor of extreme distress was `I am unable to work,' and (2) at the state level, a decline in the share of manufacturing jobs was a predictor of greater distress."
Of course, one doesn't want to overinterpret graphs like this. The measures on the left-hand axis are single-digit percentages, after all. But remember, these people are reporting that their mental health hasn't been good for a single day in the last month. The share has been steadily rising over time, through different economic and political conditions. In those pre-COVID days of 2019, 11% of the white, non-college population--call it one out of every nine in this group--reported this form of extreme distress. The implications for both public health and politics seem worth considering.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.