The COVID-19 pandemic led to a 25 percent increase in the prevalence of mental disorders, particularly anxiety and depression globally according to a 2022 World Health Organization (WHO) report. Among the explanations given for this increase, were the unexpected levels of stress caused by social isolation during the pandemic. Additionally, limits on people’s ability to work and seek support from family, friends, and loved ones were also major stressors that contributed to declines in mental health over the pandemic.

These effects were particularly severe for young people, who have a disproportionately higher risk of suicide and self-harming behaviors. All of these results are concerning, especially given the relatively little research available on mental health, and existing evidence that unexpected economic shocks can negatively impact mental health. What policy interventions could improve mental health outcomes? The answer to this question is of pressing policy interest since mental health disorders translate into staggeringly large economic losses, particularly in low-income countries where people are often faced with unexpected shocks to income and health.

We answer this question using evidence from a communication intervention in Ghana to test whether improved communication, using information and communication technology like mobile phones, can improve mental health. In our study, we partner with a major telecommunications company and implement low-cost communication interventions that provide mobile calling credits to a nationally representative set of low-income adults in Ghana during the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that individuals’ inability to make unexpected calls and need to borrow SOS airtime and seek digital loans decreased significantly relative to a control group. As a result, the programs led to a significant decrease in mental distress (-9.8 percent) and the likelihood of severe mental distress by -2.3 percentage points (a quarter of the mean prevalence). The effects were only through the reduction in mental distress, and there was no impact on consumption spending. Simple cost-benefit analysis shows that providing communication credit to low-income adults is a cost-effective policy for improving mental health. Communication—the ability to stay connected—meaningfully improves mental well-being, and interventions about communication are particularly valuable when implemented as many installments.

Read the full article about technology and mental health by Belinda Archibong and Francis Annan at Brookings.