76% of GPs questioned in a new survey say they believe the economic downturn is making people unhealthier. 

The current tight times - which have affected all social groups, but particularly the middle class - have led to an increase in abortions, anxiety and alcohol abuse, according to the GPs, who were questioned by market research firm Insight Research Group.

The doctors also say they have seen an increase in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), particularly in women.

77% of the GPs surveyed felt that there has been an increase in new cases of mental health disorders linked to the stresses of the economic climate. Of those who mentioned mental health, 54% said they believed the biggest increase has been in clinically-definable anxiety, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and panic disorders, particularly amongst men. This is a surprising statistic, as this disorder is usually associated with women.

The GPs were also questioned about the impact of the recession on themselves and their practices. Of the 77% who believed there has been an increase in mental health disorders, 96% said these patients require longer appointment times, with 83% reporting that this condition has had an impact on their practice. 

When questioned further, 60% of these GPs said they were working longer hours as a result of dealing with this increased caseload. 59% also said that they had to struggle to refer patients with mental health disorders into the services best placed to support them, with some reporting that it could take up to a year before patients are seen by a psychologist.

"The last four years have been tough for everyone," commented Richard Kunzmann, research manager at Insight Research Group, who has led the research for the last six months. 

"Although we assumed that increased workloads and financial worries had affected the nation's health to a certain extent, we wanted to hear from GPs about what they believed was happening on the ground, based on their daily experiences in their practices," he noted.

"The GPs who were surveyed felt that worries over financial security, coupled with many people working longer hours, have raised our stress levels. This has not only led to an increase in various mental health disorders but has also influenced other aspects of our life and wellbeing - from family planning through to levels of exercise. The middle class has been especially affected by the turbulence of the economic recession - amongst all of the conditions that were investigated, GPs routinely associated the increases they've seen with middle Britain," said Mr Kunzmann.

The current financial situation is presenting a particularly tough challenge for time-poor GPs who are faced with many patients who just need someone to talk to, he noted, adding: "their only real option in the immediate term is to prescribe medication, which of course is rarely the solution."