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The value of communication for mental health

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Mental health disorders account for a significant share of the overall global disease burden and translate into staggeringly large economic losses, particularly in low-income countries, where people are faced with several unexpected shocks. We test whether improved communication can mitigate such mental health disorders. Partnering with a major telecommunications company, we 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. Individuals’ inability to make unexpected calls, need to borrow SOS airtime, and to 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), with null impact on consumption expenditure. The effects are stronger for monthly mobile credits than a lump-sum. 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.

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