One in five people on low incomes in Hong Kong suffer from excessive anxiety because of inflation, and it's likely to get worse as prices climb.
The rate is three times that of those on high incomes, according to a study of 5,000 people by the Mood Disorders Centre of Chinese University. A telephone poll was conducted in the last quarter of 2011 but held for a year to monitor inflation trends. It found a close link between inflation and mental health.
The condition, if displayed for at least six months, is known as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), with symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, irritability and difficulty concentrating.
"I've woken in the middle of a night with my heart beating wildly and had to be taken to hospital," said one woman diagnosed with the disorder in 2009. Her son supports both of them on his salary of HK$10,000 a month.
She was most worried about rising food costs. "I often go to the wet market or grocery store and leave without buying anything because it's all too expensive," she said, adding she had not eaten meat in years and only bought discounted fruit close to rotting.
During periods of high inflation, people's incomes usually cannot keep up with rising living costs. The resulting deprivation of food, goods and services, and deteriorating quality of life becomes a source of stress that breeds mental health problems, said Professor Lee Sing, director of the Mood Disorders Centre at Chinese University.
"Those with household incomes of less than HK$10,000 a month are the most likely to suffer from GAD," he said. The survey found that 84 per cent of people in the city are affected by inflation to varying degrees, but those who said that inflation "significantly affected" them have a 4.4 times higher prevalence of generalised anxiety disorder than those who did not.
Inflation was at a peak in 2011 of 5.3 per cent, compared with 2 per cent in 2006. The latest official figures put the inflation rate at 4.4 per cent. Between 2006 and 2011, the city saw 50,000 new diagnoses of generalised anxiety disorder in the adult population.
The biggest worry for low-income people with the disorder is the rising cost of food. Higher-income people - those on over HK$60,000 a month - with the disorder were more concerned about their diminishing savings.
"Inflation is much more than just statistics," said Lee. "It has an immense impact on people's everyday lives. Without timely help, anxiety will worsen and make people more susceptible to developing … depression and suicidal behaviour."
Psychologist Kathleen Kwok Pik-san said low-income people could try to be positive and "have fun while shopping for bargains" to reduce stress.
But Law Ka-chung, chief economist at Communications Bank, said there was "no hope for poor people".
He said factors such as the volatile housing market meant steady inflation growth. "There's nothing [the poor] can do. They can move away from Hong Kong, but things are getting quite expensive on the mainland. If they stay, they can't expect the government to help them much."