Targeting mental health among low-income adults may help reverse unhealthy behaviors, study suggests

A new study from the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital has found that depression, stress and anxiety may predict risky behaviors, including smoking, binge drinking, poor diet, unprotected sex and drug abuse, reports ScienceDaily. The research team also explored whether the relationship went the other way–with unhealthy behaviors triggering mental health problems–but failed to find a connection. The authors suggest that adults who are struggling with mental health issues turn to drugs or alcohol, for example, as a means to cope.  

The study included nearly 500 adults who were being treated at a sexually transmitted infection clinic. The participants completed an online interview at the start of the study and then again every three months for a year. The survey assessed substance use; exercise habits; sexual, dietary, and sleep behaviors; and levels of anxiety, depression, and perceived stress. 

Those participants with very low incomes reported more “health-compromising” behaviors and symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress than those with higher incomes. Once earlier behaviors and socioeconomic status were taken into account, the researchers found that mental health problems predicted later levels of unhealthy activities.

The upshot? The authors assert that mental health and stress reduction interventions, including referring patients for counseling, could make a difference in improving the health behaviors of low-income adults:

“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.” 

The report, “Longitudinal associations between health behaviors and mental health in low income adults,” has been published in Translational Behavioral Medicine.