Poor mental health leads to unhealthy behaviors among low-income adults

February 4, 2013

Poor mental health leads to unhealthy behaviors in low-income adults – not the other way around, according to a new study¹ by Dr. Jennifer Walsh and colleagues from the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital in the US. In this study, stress and anxiety predicted subsequent health-compromising behaviors, such as smoking, binge drinking, illegal drug use, unprotected sex and unhealthy diets. One possible explanation for these findings is that health compromising behaviors may be used as coping mechanisms to manage the effects of stress and anxiety. The study is published online in the Springer journal, Translational Behavioral Medicine², and is part of an issue focusing on multiple health behavior change.

Dr. Walsh and her team explored the relationship between health-compromising behaviors and mental health in the context of socioeconomic disadvantage to determine whether lead to subsequent unhealthy behaviors, or whether these behaviors lead to mental health problems.

A total of 482 adults, receiving care at a sexually transmitted infection clinic, took part in the study. They were asked to complete an online interview at the start of the study and then three, six, nine and twelve months later. The researchers assessed a number of behaviors: substance use (binge drinking, smoking, ), exercise, as well as sexual, dietary and sleep behaviors. They also measured levels of anxiety, depression and perceived stress.

Health-compromising behaviors, including substance use, unprotected sex, and insufficient or excessive sleep, were common among patients attending the clinic. Participants with very low incomes reported a higher number of health-compromising behaviors, as well as more symptoms of depression and anxiety and higher levels of stress, compared to those participants with higher incomes.

The authors found that and anxiety, as well as perceived stress, predicted later levels of unhealthy behaviors, when both socioeconomic status and earlier behaviors were taken into account. In contrast, unhealthy behaviors did not predict later mental health. These results show that unhealthy behaviors follow depression, anxiety and stress, rather than giving rise to them.

The authors suggest that targeting mental health may offer a way to promote improvements across health behaviors: "Clinicians and practitioners should recognize that there may be high rates of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as health-compromising behaviors, in low-income populations, and they should assess mental health as well as these behaviors." Referring patients for mental health counselling or stress reduction techniques may help to improve their health behaviors.

Explore further: Unhealthy behaviors more prevalent in survivors of multiple cancers, study shows

More information: Walsh JL et al (2013). Longitudinal associations between health behaviors and mental health in low income adults. Translational Behavioral Medicine; DOI 10.1007/s13142-012-0189-5

Related Stories

Unhealthy behaviors more prevalent in survivors of multiple cancers, study shows

March 22, 2012
A study published by University of Kentucky researchers shows that survivors of multiple cancers report unhealthier behaviors post-diagnosis than control counterparts.

Overweight teens who are satisfied with their bodies are less depressed, less prone to unhealthy behaviors

April 27, 2012
A study to be published in the June 2012 issue of Journal of Adolescent Health looking at the relationships between body satisfaction and healthy psychological functioning in overweight adolescents has found that young women ...

It pays to be healthier: Targeted financial incentives for patients can lead to health behavior change

November 21, 2011
Financial incentives work for doctors. Could they work for patients, too? Could they encourage them to change unhealthy behaviors and use preventive health services more? In some cases, yes, according to Dr. Marita Lynagh ...

Recommended for you

Depression changes structure of the brain, study suggests

July 21, 2017
Changes in the brain's structure that could be the result of depression have been identified in a major scanning study.

Many kinds of happiness promote better health, study finds

July 21, 2017
A new study links the capacity to feel a variety of upbeat emotions to better health.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.