Fetal Origins of Mental Health: Evidence from Natural Disasters in Taiwan


HKUST IEMS Academic Seminar
Elaine M. Liu (University of Houston)
Friday 9 September 2016 at 12:00 - 1:30 pm (Hong Kong time, GMT +8)
Room 3301, Academic Building, HKUST

Key insights

Given the extremely high economic and social cost of mental illness, reducing the prevalence of mental illness can create huge benefits for society.

Elaine Liu, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Houston, presented her research on pre- natal exposure to environmental stressors and mental illnesses in Taiwan. Her study finds that in utero exposure to typhoons increased the risk of an individual developing mental illness by 12%. Such individuals were more likely to be prescribed psychiatric drugs, such as antidepressants, by more than 40% - a result that was more prominent for women. Previous studies have investigated the link between in-utero experiences and physical health outcomes, but not mental health outcomes.

Prof Liu suggested that pregnant women who endure natural disasters during pregnancy should be targeted for support to avoid more costly treatment later in life. Liu also pointed out that in-utero experiences can help identify high-risk groups and guide support programs, making screening procedures more cost effective compared to expensive blanket approaches. 


Professor Elaine M. Liu examines the impact of poor intrauterine environment on psychological well-being later in life caused by severe typhoons that took place in Taiwan. Exploiting time and geographical variation, Liu's research compares the mental health of individuals who were exposed to severe typhoons while in utero in landfall counties to those who had no fetal exposure to severe typhoons. Professor Elaine M. Liu finds that the likelihood of mental disorders in adulthood resulting from fetal exposure to severe typhoons increased by 12%. The incidence of mood disorder (e.g. depression) and the use of antidepressant increased by more than 40%. The effects are more prominent for women.

About the Speaker

Elaine M. Liu is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Houston. She received her B.A. from Wellesley College in 2003 and her Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton University in 2008. Professor Liu’s research lies at the intersection of the fields of development economics, labor economics, health economics and behavioral economics. Her research focuses on the applied microeconomic issues in China and in Taiwan. Her recent work examines the impact of foreign bride influx on native women’s intrahousehold bargaining power in Taiwan. Her works have been published in venues including the Review of Economics and Statistics, the Journal of Health Economics, the Journal of Development Economics and the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organizations.

This event was co-organized by the Division of Social Science, HKUST and HKUST Institute for Emerging Markets Studies

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