Will Obamacare Create a Decrease in Depression?


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Having health care available may improve mental health. Image by LilJoel

Could Obamacare reduce depression levels in the United States?

The new insurance rules and requirements mandated by the Affordable Care Act have many in a tizzy, with supporters and detractors equally vocal in their opinions about the change.

Some hail the dawn of a new era in which health insurance woes will become a thing of the past, while others bemoan the confusion and waste of public funds Obamacare will produce.

A new study coming out of Oregon, however, demonstrates one unexpected benefit of universal health insurance: Improved mental health.

Health Insurance Study

Researchers had a unique opportunity to study the effects of receiving health insurance, due to an unusual occurrence in Oregon. Experiencing a budget surplus in 2008, state legislators decided to use the funds to provide Medicaid, a form of state-funded health insurance, to 10,000 low-income residents. They held a lottery to determine the beneficiaries of the decision. Following the outcome of the lottery, researchers followed winners of the insurance lottery along with the less fortunate, who continued to struggle without health insurance.

After Medicaid: More Spending, But Less Depression

Detractors of the new health insurance mandates could feel justified about some of the results of the study. Indeed, those who received Medicaid made good use of the insurance, scheduling doctors’ visits and purchasing medications. As a result of the lottery, the state had to increase its health care spending by about 35%. Moreover, receiving Medicaid coverage did not seem to lower people’s cholesterol levels or increase their likelihood of accessing treatment for high blood pressure, which are two key elements of good health.

Despite the disappointing figures about Medicaid’s failure to induce better health, mental health scores were highly encouraging. Those who were granted health insurance showed a 30% decrease in depression.  Perhaps relatedly, having insurance led a significant reduction in financial strain. The insured reported virtually no devastating medical costs that created financial crisis. In fact, they were around 60% less likely to borrow money than those who had lost the Medicaid lottery.

Financial Problems a Leading Source of Depression

While the exact source of decreased depression rates in the insured is unclear, we can form conjectures based on recent research. Researchers noted that subjects in the insured group did not take antidepressant medications at a noticeably increased level, but they did not examine whether subjects were more likely to obtain verbal therapy for their mental health issues. It’s possible that the decreased depression rates are due to increased access to psychotherapeutic mental health treatment.

A more plausible suggestion is that the decrease in financial-related stress associated with having health insurance positively altered people’s moods. The correlation between poor economic situations and negative mood has been well established. A 2010 study in the International Journal of Mental Health, led by Sidra J. Goldman-Mellor, examined two decades’ worth of investigations into the effects of economic contraction on mental health. The researchers found that adverse economic events predict mental health difficulties: Predominately depression, suicide and substance abuse.

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