Rikala, Sanna: Depression, work disability and social inequality in young adults’ life courses

Original research article published in Yhteiskuntapolitiikka Journal 83(2018):2


Rates of depression-related sick leave and disability pension have soared among adults under 30 years of age. Furthermore, young adults outside work and education often suffer from mental health problems. However, little is known about the processes that lead to depression-related work disability or to early social marginalization due to mental health problems. This study draws on qualitative research methods to address these questions.

The data consist of 49 life story interviews with young adults who have ended up on disability benefits, in unemployment, or outside the social security system due to depression. The analysis focuses especially on social inequalities in the processes leading to depression-related incapacity for work. The life stories were categorized into four subgroups according to the interviewee’s former labour market positions: ‘from school’, ‘from higher education’, ‘from work life’, and ‘from a precarious labour market background’. The analysis firstly explores the typical paths leading to incapacity for work in each subgroup; and secondly compares the processes between the subgroups.

Three major hazards emerged in the interviewees’ life stories: difficult childhood living conditions, pressures faced in studies and at work, and problems with access to medical care and income security. However, significant differences were found between young adults coming from different labour market positions. Whereas the pressures faced in studies and at work appeared to have the same weight and significance in the different subgroups, the lack of proper health care and income difficulties were more common among young adults with a precarious labour market background.

Keywords: depression, work disability, young adults, social inequality, life course


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