New research has found that some neoliberal beliefs (personal wherewithal) are linked to better health, life satisfaction, and social well-being. In contrast, other neoliberal beliefs (anti-government sentiments) are associated with worse outcomes in these areas for participants living in Canada during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Researchers Kiffer G. Card and Kirk J. Hepburn recruited 2632 participants who were given a self-report survey to assess their levels of neoliberal beliefs, health, social well-being, and life satisfaction.
This piece of research reinforces past studies that have linked neoliberal beliefs to declining mental health while challenging that relationship’s simplicity by showing that a subset of those beliefs may be associated with better mental health for individuals. The authors write:
“Our study shows that beliefs in different dimensions of neoliberal ideology have differing effects on health and well-being for Canadians living during the COVID-19 pandemic. Namely, higher belief in personal wherewithal appears to have a positive relationship with health and well-being, while anti-government interference beliefs appear to be associated with lower social trust and life satisfaction.”
The current work attempts to understand better how neoliberal beliefs affect the health and well-being of their adherents. The researchers chose to investigate this relationship during the COVID-19 pandemic as (according to many pundits) state actions preventing the spread of COVID-19 have ended the neoliberal era of limited government interference.
The authors recruited 2632 Canadians using a paid advertisement published on Facebook and Instagram between May and June 2020. Participation was restricted to those 16 or older living in Canada and could provide informed consent. Participants were given a self-report survey to assess their adherence to three neoliberal beliefs (personal wherewithal, natural competition, and anti-government interference) as well as their physical health, number of health diagnoses, life satisfaction, loneliness, and social trust.
In the current sample, personal wherewithal was associated with better physical health, life satisfaction, and social trust. Additionally, those scoring high in personal wherewithal showed less loneliness and health diagnoses. This finding would indicate that a belief in personal wherewithal (self-reliance and self-efficacy) has positive results at the individual level. According to the authors, this finding may explain why many adherents of neoliberalism believe this ideology leads to improved quality of life despite evidence that these beliefs harm collective well-being.
The authors also found higher scores on anti-government interference beliefs were associated with worse life satisfaction and social well-being. However, the authors explain that this finding must be understood in the context of state action around the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who believe government interference leads to worse outcomes would likely rate their life satisfaction lower as they witness increased government interventions.
The authors recognize several limitations to the current research. First, the data was obtained using a non-randomized, self-selected, cross-sectional method and can make no claim about the direction of causality (for example, do anti-government beliefs cause life satisfaction to go down, or does having low life satisfaction cause more anti-government beliefs?). The data was collected using an online convenience sample which could limit the generalizability of the findings. There are likely important variables that were not measured, such as personal circumstances, that could better explain some of the results here. The participants in the study were also overwhelmingly white (73.8%). However, the demographic makeup of the sample was similar to the overall population of Canada.
Past research has shown that endorsing neoliberal ideas is linked to loneliness and reduced well-being. According to the authors, this is due to neoliberal beliefs creating a sense of disconnection and competition. Researchers have also linked neoliberalism to increased suicidal ideation and stigma around suicide.
Other scholars have connected neoliberal values with the mental health crises currently occurring in the West, as well as an overall decline in well-being. Research has shown that neoliberal policies negatively affect older Americans as the emphasis on privatization means that care for this group is increasingly done by private entities prioritizing profit over proper care. Similarly, research has found that neoliberalism and the consistent pressure on those living under it negatively affect young people’s mental health.
The COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected family functioning, with research showing deterioration in both parent and child mental/behavioral health. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the ill effects of social inequality. One study found that social inequality leads to more cases of COVID-19 for poorer people. The adverse effects of quarantine were also felt most intensely by that same group. Another similar piece of research found that social inequality leads to increased mental distress for the poor during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In short, the poor were much more susceptible to the stress associated with the pandemic and had few resources for dealing with that stress. Increased stress creates a larger need for mental health services and psychiatric facilities. Unfortunately, the chances of getting COVID-19 were so high within these facilities that one author called them an “incubator” for the virus.
Card, K. G., & Hepburn, K. J. (2022). Is neoliberalism killing us? A cross-sectional study of the impact of neoliberal beliefs on health and social well-being amid the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Health Services, 002073142211340. https://doi.org/10.1177/00207314221134040 (Link)