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Poverty and Mental Health: How are They Connected?

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Most people have encountered something like it: When you spend a long period under high stress, you wind up with a cold because your immune system is down. And vice versa: when you’re sick for a long period, you start to feel down in the dumps.

They’re both examples of the interplay between mental and physical health, something that scientists are learning more and more about. In terms of global poverty, there are many possibilities that could arise from an increased focus on the mental health of those living in the third world. Poverty becomes a third factor in this cyclical relationship.

Those who have mental disorders are more likely to be sick, and also to be impoverished (because they can’t find jobs due to feelings of inadequacy, discrimination or inability to function.) When a person is impoverished, they are less able to afford health care and are also more vulnerable to mental disorders such as depression. And the convoluted cycle continues.

In fact, way back in 1963, in a study by Langner and Michael, it was conceded that generally there is a cause and effect relationship between poverty and mental health.

The link between all three is almost inextricable. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers a few statistics that make this point all too clear.

  • The percentage of HIV/AIDS patients suffering from depression may be higher than 60 percent.
  • Depression occurs approximately twice more often in low-income groups than it does among the rich.
  • “Babies of depressed mothers are 5 times more likely to be underweight and stunted than babies of non-depressed mothers.”

Furthermore, according to WHO, 31 percent of countries don’t have a specific budget dedicated to health. Seventy-six to 85 percent of people with serious mental health conditions do not receive treatment in developing countries.

But this isn’t a depressing indicator that the doom of the world is coming quickly and imminently. On the contrary, understanding the nature of the cycle means that aid can enter into it at any point to keep it from perpetuating itself.

Aid for physical health and economic disparity are most commonly offered to those in the developing world. Perhaps, by taking a look at poverty from a new angle – through the lens of mental health – huge strides could be made towards improving all three areas on a global scale.

WHO’s website states, “Mental health issues cannot be considered in isolation from other areas of development, such as education, employment, emergency responses and human rights capacity building.”

Knowing that that is not what is being done gives humanitarians the perfect opportunity to reconsider what to prioritize in the fight against global poverty and chronic diseases, whether physical or mental.

Emily Dieckman

Sources: Journals of The Royal College of Psychiatrists, Europa, WHO 1, WHO 2
Photo: Google Images