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Improving Mental Health in Poor Communities

Mental Health in Poor Communities
While it is proven that poverty leads to cognitive setbacks, similar studies suggest that there are methods to counter poverty and its psychological effects in both the family unit and schools.

Improving mental health in poor communities became a priority in sustainable development over the last decade. Children from low-income families face psychological challenges that are much less common for higher-income children, including developmental delays, mental disabilities, ADHD, anxiety, depression and attention disorders. Parents’ education levels, race and other critical factors are not shown to have as strong a correlation as family income. Scientists trace statistics concerning mental health in poor communities back to inadequate nutrition, obstacles to proper development and chronic stress.

In response to these findings, more promising studies have shown that efforts to improve mental health in disadvantaged populations can be particularly effective during childhood.

For example, nutrition during and for a year after pregnancy is a critical part of cognitive development. Mothers who prioritize nutrition and a high-protein diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding are far more likely to have children free of mental disability.

The parent-child relationship is also crucial. At least one parent or parental figure’s consistent ability to care for a child leads to “secure attachment,” which encourages brain development, feelings of being worthy of love and the development of positive relationships. Professionals today are using attachment theory to understand and assist disadvantaged families.

The takeaway is that prioritizing pregnancy education and support in addition to positive parental relationships can improve mental health in poor communities.

Outside of the family unit, schools are an additional opportunity to promote psychological health in disadvantaged populations. Encouraging students to set goals in the classroom and giving consistent feedback develops student autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Since impoverished individuals are at greater risk of adopting a “victim mindset,” the thought process that external events alone determine their circumstance, drive and independence are crucial to future success.

According to the self-determination theory, surrounding students having material that suggests they can overcome difficult circumstances lead them to believe that they can succeed. Supplementing this school material with similar cultural stories and values at home increases the chances of internalizing positive values.

Organizing students into cooperative learning groups promotes relaxation, high achievement, positive relationships and improved psychological health, according to a 2000 study. Encouraging children to work together may combat the anxiety and stress that results from living in a low-income family and improve socialization.

While the psychological effects of poverty can be discouraging, these studies suggest that simple changes in the home and classroom are highly effective ways of empowering disadvantaged individuals. As research continues in the areas of cognitive development and psychology, further improvement in mental health in poor communities is expected.

Kailey Dubinsky

Photo: Flickr