12/27/2011 01:01 pm ET

Stress Medication, Antidepressant Use Linked To Unemployment Rate: Study

The job market is weak, and not looking like it will get substantially better any time soon. And if prescription medication patterns are any indication, Americans aren't happy about it.

For the past five years, the use of drugs for depression, anxiety and high blood pressure has closely followed the ups and downs -- mostly ups -- of the U.S. joblessness rate, an analysis by Bloomberg Rankings has found. Medication for acid reflux -- the unpleasant burning sensation in the chest that is often associated with stress -- showed the strongest correlation with labor force numbers, matching the unemployment rate by 93 percent.

From November 2006 to October 2009, as the financial sector seized up and a global credit crunch hit businesses big and small alike, American unemployment jumped from 4.5 percent to a quarter-century high of 10.2 percent. Today it has fallen somewhat to 8.6 percent, a rate that economists say is still unacceptably high if the economy is to recover from its doldrums.

The evaporation of millions of jobs has pushed countless Americans out of their onetime positions of financial stability, to the point where more than one in six Americans is now struggling simply to afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and health care, according to Gallup. Even if a worker loses her job and then finds a new position somewhere else, chances are good she'll be earning less -- a wage-depression effect that can last up to 20 years.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the weak economy is inflicting damage on Americans' mental health, with more people reporting cases of anxiety, depression, and compulsive behavior -- like gambling or alcohol abuse -- which they attribute to the poor labor market or the nationwide foreclosure crisis. (In Ireland, the recession of recent years has also been linked to a rise in the number of people seeking treatment for sex addiction.)

At the same time, the medical trends Bloomberg observed are likely influenced by other factors beyond the economy. The rise in acid reflux medication, for example, may be linked to the high unemployment rate, but health professionals say it probably has something to do with America's growing obesity problem as well. And experts speculate that the sharp jump in antidepressant use since 1988 might be at least partly the result of pharmaceutical advertising becoming more effective.