Five Reasons for the Link Between Poverty and Mental Health
Poverty and mental health are inextricably tied for a myriad of reasons. A report published by the World Health Organization suggests that poor individuals are twice as affected by mental health conditions compared to rich individuals. The most important reasons for this stark inequality are outlined below.

  1. Destitute living conditions:
    Poverty often results in an inability to afford basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. This can result in poor living conditions and in some situations, homelessness, when individuals cannot afford rent or mortgage expenses. The uncertainty associated with living in unstable environments can often elicit a lot of stress, which can predispose individuals to mental health conditions such as depression. Poor standards of living can be addressed through aid provided by developed countries and increased public expenditure on necessary facilities such as schools, hospitals and transport systems.
  2. Stress over prolonged periods of time:
    In 2011, information published by the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study revealed that generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by anxiety over non-specific things, was most prevalent in the poorest individuals of a particular sample population. Mothers, especially in developing countries, are constantly plagued by worry about their children’s safety, nutrition and physical and social development. Despite their worries, they are compelled to make ends meet and continue to provide for their families by cooking food, cleaning the house and ensuring utility bills are paid in a timely manner. Access to services that guide women on proper care and upbringing of children can address the effects of excessive stress on children. The government can also play a role in supporting households by providing subsidies and grants for education and discounts for health care. This is a major factor in the link between poverty and mental health.
  3. Unhealthy consumption habits:
    The effects of poverty are compounded by a multitude of problems such as homelessness, debt, risk of violence, increased rates of illness and loss of social standing and self-esteem. These problems can take a severe toll on an individual, resulting in self-harming habits such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, drug abuse and consumption of fast food, which is often more affordable than healthier alternatives. An alarming statistic states that approximately 33 percent of individuals suffering from poverty smoke compared to a significantly less 20 percent of individuals who are not poor.Unhealthy habits can be resolved through campaigns educating individuals about the importance of healthy eating and the negative health consequences of smoking and alcohol consumption.
  4. Insufficient access to health care services:
    Individuals suffering from poverty typically have insufficient financial resources, preventing access to affordable health care services. This prevents them from seeking help early, which may result in the progression of their mental health affliction. Poor populations can be encouraged to access health care services through subsidies and increased distribution of local clinics, which make it possible to receive this care without having to travel over long distances. Regular monitoring and sampling for mental health conditions in impoverished societies are also of critical importance.
  5. Diminished attention towards the needs of children:
    Working individuals living in poor households are likely to be preoccupied with several concerns such as debt, stress from work and even relationships with their partner. These stresses may take away attention from the growth and development of their children, leading to adverse effects on the mental health of these children. It is estimated that depression has a prevalence of 0.4 to 2 percent in children ages 6 to 12 years. Parenting training programs and reliable child care services can help children living in poor conditions receive the care they need.

While the relationship between poverty and mental health is complicated, individual measures taken to reduce global poverty are likely to have positive impacts on mental health issues in underprivileged populations.

Tanvi Ambulkar

Photo: Flickr

Bradley Ariza, a man living in the U.K. with his girlfriend and children, is stressed all the time. In addition to constant hunger and insecurity, he needs to carefully calculate every calorie he eats to make sure he has enough, and count every penny he spends to ensure that his finances remain in order. He feels the constant pressure to maintain certain living standards for his family. Poverty becomes a “physical and psychological condition,” not just an economic one.

Studying the psychological effects of poverty is not usually met with enthusiastic approval. In the past, such research was often tainted with racism. It was also accused of being a way of blaming the poor for their behavior. Sometimes it has been seen as unnecessary because of the belief that although the poor are more deprived, they are happier. However, scholarly and public opinions are becoming increasingly more open to studying the effects of poverty on psychology and behavior. It is slowly beginning to be seen as a way to tackle poverty.

Poverty creates a “mindset of scarcity,” as behavioral economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have termed it. People are more likely to focus on current, pressing issues rather than long-term ones, even if they might be as important to their well-being. For instance, Indian farmers might prioritize their coming harvest over vaccinating their children. Some researchers have even found that the IQ of Indian sugarcane farmers falls just before their harvest.

Studies have already shown that poorer people have elevated levels of stress, and it is also widely known that stress is linked to depression. Depression, which causes absenteeism and lower levels of productivity, costs the U.S. and U.K. up to one percent of their GDP each year. People who are suffering from extreme stress and depression are less likely to make long-term investments in their health and education. They are more inclined to seek short-term rewards rather than long-term ones because they find it harder to delay gratification. These psychological effects of living in poverty make it more difficult for people to climb out of it.

Researchers are now exploring whether lowering stress and depression can improve people’s mental states enough so that they make better financial decisions and are more motivated about their future. When they are offered more psychological-centered treatments, such as therapy or counseling, people might be more likely to build a path out of the poverty trap. Studying this connection could also help explain why aid sometimes does not seem to work as it should. Microloans, for instance, might be financially helpful, but the added stress to repay loans might make poorer people’s lives worse.

Direct aid, instead of microloans, might be more beneficial. Johannes Haushofer, founder of the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, has started studying how stress affects one’s ability to make good financial decisions. He found that giving unconditional cash transfers to families lowered their levels of depression and stress. In turn, they were more likely to make long-term, thought-out financial decisions. The effects were especially prominent when the cash transfer was a big enough size and given to women.

Radhika Singh

Sources: Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Harvard
Photo: The Prisma

poverty and education interlinked
It is a well-documented fact that children from low-income households are significantly less likely to be successful than their middle and upper class counterparts. Studies have repeatedly shown a link between poverty and education. Family income is one of the strongest predictors available for measuring success, both in the classroom and later in life.

With fewer resources and less of a focus on education at home, children growing up in poverty are behind from the very beginning. Household stresses from living in poverty build up in the child, making it extremely difficult to concentrate on education.

Even if they are going to school regularly, children in poverty often fail to get an adequate education due to the stress of destitution. Since they have such a difficult time in the classroom, the kids fall into the poverty trap, in which their lack of education prevents any rise on the social ladder.

Until recently, it was unclear exactly what biological process made that the case. However, recent studies have pointed towards working memory as the key psychological factor linking poverty and education, specifically in academic achievement.


Working Memory Links Poverty and Education


Working memory is a “temporary storage mechanism” that lets us hold information and facts in our head for short-term usage and manipulation. The process of using working memory is central for reading, problem-solving and learning new languages.

A number of studies have shown that children with the best working memories also tend to have the highest test scores and the best grades. Children in poverty consistently have a less developed working memory than those above the poverty line.

With a dearth of educational resources in poor countries, an underdeveloped working memory often goes unnoticed and untreated.

This means that in addition to dealing with stress at home, children in poverty also have trouble remembering basic facts and instructions at school. Unable to stay on task, and struggling to keep up, their failure at school only adds to their stress level.

What’s more, a study published in the Development Science journal showed that, “Stress in early childhood negatively affects a child’s working memory in adulthood.”

The problems for children in poverty become even bigger problems in their adult lives. While a poor working memory for a child only means bad grades, it spells unemployment and crushing poverty for an adult.

The answer must come well before adulthood. With properly trained educators, an underdeveloped working memory can be easily spotted and rectified before it becomes a larger problem.

The lack of a proper education makes up a major part of the poverty trap — a phenomenon in which people living in poverty cannot rise up due to scarce resources, depression, lack of opportunity and other issues. The poverty trap can start before the child ever enters the classroom, and it has long-term psychological consequences.

Even from early childhood, poverty can create both a biological obstacle and an inescapable trap that collectively reduces the likelihood for academic and monetary success.

– Sam Hillestad

Sources: PsyBlog, PNAS