Poverty and PTSDCommonly associated with combat veterans, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) impacts more of the global population than maybe expected. Recent studies have found a link between poverty and PTSD that reveals that socioeconomic status contributes to the majority of anxiety disorders.

How Poverty Contributes to PTSD

Mental disorders manifest in distinct ways for many people. However, the common underlying origin of Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) remains a terrifying or traumatic life event. Living in poverty often means surviving daily in vulnerable conditions, and with financial instability that limits access to necessities such as food, shelter and water. The inability to pay for expenses starts to become emotionally and mentally taxing. Poverty acts as a traumatic experience in many people’s lives and even after graduating in class status, difficulty persists to enjoy day to day life.

Symptoms of PTSD can appear within months of the traumatic event and include:

  • Avoiding: Detaching from the traumatic event by avoiding triggers such as places, situations or people.
  • Reliving: Flashbacks and nightmares due to memories that force reliving the traumatic experience.
  • Increased Arousal: An increased blood pressure or heart rate accompanied by outbursts of anger and difficulties sleeping

Some people with PTSD may exhibit all these symptoms, while others exhibit just a few. The severity of PTSD also varies from person to person. PTSD can be broken down into subtypes such as:

  • Delayed on-set PTSD: This variation refers to when symptoms of the disorder develop many years after the traumatic event.
  • Complex PTSD: This type of PTSD usually surfaces after ongoing childhood physical or sexual abuse.
  • Birth Trauma: This type occurs after traumatic childbirth.

Women with PTSD

Research estimates that 284 million people globally suffer from anxiety disorders such as PTSD. About 63 percent of people that suffer from anxiety disorders are women. In addition, women living in poverty tend to face PTSD at higher levels than any other group within the general population. The relationship between poverty and PTSD embodies that of the domino effect. Poor women’s PTSD symptoms often worsen due to the fact that living in impoverished neighborhoods risk ongoing exposure to triggers of the traumatic incident. A study undertaken by the Social Cognitive Theory also reveals that most of the women living in poverty with PTSD share a history of domestic violence and lack social support.


It can feel nearly impossible to live a normal life with PTSD. Luckily, effective treatments exist that minimize the symptoms of the disorder. One of the best treatments for PTSD is Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy allows PTSD victims to talk about their cognitive behavioral process to a mental health professional to reduce and change reactions to triggers. Another important tool for managing PTSD is having a strong support system. The help of friends and family means everything during a mental health crisis. A support system of others that have suffered from PTSD also helps signify that a person is not alone in the experiences of the mental disorder. There are also organizations such as the PTSD Alliance, who work to educate and empower people with PTSD psychologically, economically and emotionally to thrive beyond environmental barriers. The organization currently has five international partners that provide programs to help improve the lives of those living in poverty with PTSD.

Overall, poverty and PTSD remain two prominent issues impacting people on a global scale. The connection between poverty and PTSD only further emphasizes that the more work that is done to reduce global poverty also diminishes the mental health crisis.

Nia Coleman
Photo: Wikimedia

art alleviates poverty
Researchers at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile have found a way to combat some of the negative psychological effects of poverty by using art.

Marianne Daher and Ana María Haz’s study, published in 2011, looked at the impact of artistic activities on the minds of 10 impoverished women living in Chile’s capital, Santiago. The study used art to help these women better understand the impact of poverty on their lives.

The researchers defined poverty as a deprivation both of physical needs and psychosocial needs, the latter of which includes self-knowledge, education and confidence.

Deprivation of both has been shown to arouse anxiety and affective disorders in women who live in poverty.

The study’s participants worked with a variety of materials and in a variety of mediums, including drawing, collage and painting. They worked alone and collaborated with other participants as well. At the end of the study, they invited friends and family to an exhibition of their work.

Researchers collected qualitative data through interviews with the participants. The women answered questions that asked them about their psychological state before, during and after the creation of their art.

Through their work, the scope of the burden of poverty became clear both to researchers and to the women themselves, who noted they rarely had chances to express themselves before. The women felt overwhelmed by their lack of education, their large families, their dangerous neighborhoods, their inadequate access to health services, their unfulfilling and unappreciated role as housewives and their inability to hire others to look after their children.

Art alleviates poverty by combating the stress that threatened to overwhelm these women. Women described the process of painting as relaxing, and they appreciated having time for self-development. Many women also learned about themselves during their artistic experiment.

“I find something absolutely different,” one participant said. She continued, “I find myself and my feelings. More than the painting itself, I find something I have always had, but now I got it: I find myself.”

Researchers discovered that the feeling of well-being nurtured by the artistic process carried over into the women’s daily lives. One participant described the metaphor between the correction of her mistakes while painting and the correction of her mistakes in her daily life:

“Many times I have complained because it [the painting] went wrong, but finally I could fix it! So, why shouldn’t I believe this is possible if I was also capable to correct my mistakes [at home].”

In the study’s conclusion, the researchers noted art’s potential to serve as a defense against the stresses of poverty. However, the study also shows how effective the artistic process can be at digging up the frustrations that impoverished women bury within themselves as a coping mechanism.

Bringing those frustrations into the open is a challenge that has perplexed many who have sought to find a way to measure poverty’s impact on the mental well-being of the poor.

During the past decade, traditional measures of poverty have seemed more and more inadequate—Chile’s CASEN survey, for example. The CASEN survey focuses on economic factors, comparing “homes’ per capita income with a minimum expected income,” but these factors say nothing about the psychological traumas that poverty can inflict on the impoverished.

To uncover those traumas, art may be the answer.

Ryan Yanke

Sources: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative 1, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative 2, Psychology Today, American Journal of Community Psychology

Photo: Photography Blogger

Every day Syria’s people live in unending stress caused by the conflict. This frenetic climate is especially traumatic for children, who are exhibiting signs of psychological damage.

Children need stability in order to develop into emotionally stable adults, so a bombardment of unpredictable stressors that occur in the early stages of development can have lasting repercussions. Many children in Syria have witnessed horrific violence, and many have lost their parents, friends, and family to the war. Many children have been forced to flee their homes again and again, and live with the daily insecurity of not knowing if they will be protected, taken care of, or have enough to eat.

Traumatic events impact children far more severely than adults. The effects of abuse, natural disasters, or war shape the child’s brain as it is developing, causing lasting changes in the way traumatized children will function, feel emotions, understand their world, and interact with others throughout their lives. Parents of children in Syria are reporting unsettling signs of severe anxiety, like frequent nightmares and bedwetting. These children are also growing more aggressive and reckless, or withdrawn and clingy. This is because repeated threats of violence trigger a fight-or-flight response in the brain that may never be turned off for young children. Their overwhelming grief is also apparent in their drawings, which depict scenes of destruction and blood.

The deep and lasting psychological trauma of war is leaving invisible scars on over 4 million children impacted by the conflict in Syria, according to UNICEF. But there is hope, since the child’s mind is still growing, they are more resilient than adults. UNICEF has been working with children and parents displaced by the conflict, to help them express their difficult emotions through constructive outlets, and to give them a sense of security by simply being there to help them. They are also training teachers to be supportive and to notice when children need specialized care, and providing safe spaces designated for children to play, an important activity for social development. This kind of care has reached 470,000 children in Syria this year, and UNICEF is appealing for more funding for the program. “Helping children deal with fears and insecurity is not a luxury,” said Maria Calivis. “Parents who see their children reconnecting with their childhood have become our best advocates for this service.”

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: UNICEF Press, Vermont Department of Mental Health
Photo: Stand Up America