Poverty & Mental Health

Updated: Jul 24

Close your eyes for a second and think of the first thing that comes to mind when you see the phrase: “mental health.”

Chances are you’ve probably thought of the name of a mental illness, the symptoms associated with a type of mental illness, a therapist, something brain-related, or you’ve entirely spaced out…

All are entirely valid options, regardless of what category you fell into. According to this source, an important area that is often overlooked is the effect of socioeconomic status on mental health. Namely, how poverty can influence mental health and provide barriers for individuals seeking treatment for mental illness.

Before getting into this topic, there are a few key points that need to be addressed. This is not to say that poverty will indubitably cause mental illness; rather, the situation surrounding poverty can create obstacles for individuals that can potentially have an adverse effect on one’s mental health. On the flip side, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that individuals may be living in poverty because of living with a mental illness. Another important fact to address is the possibility of that there may be external factors, (such as experiencing forms of trauma), that may be responsible for increasing one’s likelihood of developing a mental illness. Regardless, it’s important to be aware of the challenges associated with poverty that can possibly impact mental health.

So, what is it about poverty that can potentially bring about adverse changes?

For starters, as noted above, according to one study, children living in poverty face additional obstacles such as lacking access to healthy food sources. Similarly, the same source mentions that those living in poverty may undergo biological changes as a result of the stressors that these individuals may face. To be specific, children living in poverty had a more active amygdala, (area of the brain responsible for emotions), compared to those that didn’t. Another study, found that difficulties in the regulation of emotions can have negative repercussions on one’s mental health along with physical health.

Another important obstacle that individuals face, especially those affected by poverty, is access to treatment.

There are plenty of obstacles that individuals may face in seeking help. Some examples include the stigma associated with mental illness along with a general lack of mental health services. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, many individuals seek out a primary care physician with mental health-related inquiries that physicians typically have not been “adequately trained to diagnose or treat.” A reason, which the source stresses, is the need for psychological services within health care settings. Another issue that comes into play is the quality of available mental health services. One study details that the lack of cultural competence within current mental health care practices can adversely affect the quality of treatment. For impoverished individuals, these concerns become amplified. According to this study, for individuals affected by poverty, cost of services becomes a major obstacle in receiving treatment.

While it is evident that poverty can potentially lead to adverse consequences on one’s wellbeing, it raises important points regarding the current situation. Given the current circumstances and financial challenges that many may face because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to note the possible effects of poverty on mental health. According to this source, which investigated the effects of 2008’s Great Recession, found that unemployment, specifically for extended periods of time, associated with adverse effects on mental health.

This is something to keep in mind—no pun intended— while moving forward. In 2019, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that within the United States, approximately 20% of individuals live with a form of mental illness. As of June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a report found that approximately 40.9% of surveyed individuals indicated that they were struggling with a form of mental health issue. While both values may not be specific to individuals living in poverty, financial strain was specifically pointed out as a possible stressor potentially influencing these harmful effects on mental health in the latter report.

Living in a pandemic-ridden society, it’s crucial to keep in mind the importance of mental health care in what many deem as a crisis and ensure the accessibility of care to groups that need it.

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