Why are researchers studying the health effects of economic change reaching markedly varying conclusions? To understand these differences, we first systematically searched Web of Science for the literature on recessions and health yielding 461 articles and 14,401 cited documents. We then undertook a network analysis of co-citation pattern by disciplines, journals and backgrounds of the authors, followed by a chronological review of the literature, to trace the evolution of ideas. We then examined the extent to which earlier literature predicted what has happened in the 2007–2012 crisis. Our analysis finds the literature is dominated by disciplinary silos, with economics studies predominantly citing each other and relative isolation of psychiatry and substance abuse journals. Different philosophical approaches to assessing causality appear to contribute to varying interpretations, a tendency that is unlikely to be resolved without a shift in research norms. We conclude by calling for more inter-disciplinary research that combines empirical findings with a search for plausible mechanisms. This approach would evaluate not only the effects of economic shocks but also the mechanisms that offer protection against them.