The Link Between Poverty and Mental Health

Is poverty triggering mental health conditions or do mental illnesses keep people below the poverty line? Let’s try to break it down

The Link Between Poverty and Mental Health
Reviewed by Dr. Marc Miresco, Head of Mental Health Services at Antidote Health

The relationship between poverty and illness has long been established. Life expectancy, infant mortality rates, and death rates for the 14 leading causes of death are all more prevalent among those living in low-income communities. Poverty has an effect on an individual level as well as the community level. Struggling to make ends meet prevents individuals from accessing necessary health care. You know, things like seeing a doctor without waiting for symptoms to become unbearable, seeking preventative care, getting regular check-ups, and more. For communities, poverty means less accessible services, worse medical infrastructure, and fewer medical professionals available. 

A clear-cut example of the effect poverty has on health is the dramatic difference in life expectancy between nearby communities in the U.S. Did you know that in 2013, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found an astounding 25-year difference in average life expectancy between suburban and inner-city New Orleans? Only a few miles separate people living to 55 and their neighbors who are expected to reach age 80.

Economic exclusion has a dreadful effect on healthcare in general and on mental health specifically. Many different components factor into our mental health: genetics, age, society, physical environment, and economic conditions all contribute to our mental state. The correlation between a person’s economic and mental state has been proven time and time again in studies conducted across western countries. In Wales, for example, suicide rates, number of people reported as being treated for a mental health condition, and number of children suffering from serious mental health difficulties were all significantly higher in less affluent areas. 

Poverty and mental health disorders are linked. But which leads to which?

In research, it is easier to prove correlation than causation. We know that there’s a strong correlation between poverty and the mental state of an individual, but why? Is poverty causing a deterioration in mental health or do mental illnesses prevent people from making money? Let’s try to break it down:

Loss of income leads to mental health conditions:

Global studies have found a strong connection between periods of economic recession and increase in depression, self-harming behavior, and suicide. Suicide is believed to be so prominent during economic crises that researchers actually coined the term “economic suicide” to describe individuals who took their lives in association with periods of an economic hardship. The opposite was found to be true as well, programs aimed at helping low-income communities were found to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Unemployment and poor working conditions drive mental illness:

3.7% of Americans are unemployed. In addition to that, Americans work more than in any other OECD country on average. Many workers in the U.S. spend hours every day working under poor or dangerous conditions, to earn a minimal, insufficient pay. Unemployment, poor and dangerous work conditions, and low-paying jobs may all lead to heightened levels of stress and lower self-esteem. Feeling unappreciated, constantly worrying about money while having no time to explore other possibilities, and disbelieving that things can get better are all possible contributors to the well-established connection between employment status and mental health.

Mental illness drives unemployment: 

Think about a child who struggles with a mental illness. Let’s say, social anxiety disorder. Think about the inner battle of stepping into school every morning. Think about all the days where the struggle is simply too great and they stay home, opening and widening the gap between them and their classmates. 

Think about what that gap might mean for their grades. And what their grades mean for their future academic aspirations. And what those aspirations mean for their employment options and projected salary. 

This clearly overly simplistic and generalized example is meant to highlight a world of struggles we often overlook. Mental health conditions drive down productivity and make it harder for individuals to get and maintain a job, but that is not to say that children who struggle with mental health disorders are doomed to a life of hardships or that adults with mental illnesses are not fantastic employees, especially if treated. We are merely pointing at the invisible struggles these individuals face. We, as a society, must educate ourselves about the unique difficulties of the mentally ill, battle the stigma surrounding mental health conditions, and make sure that people with mental illness – from children to the elderly – are fully integrated into society. 

The bottom line 

It is unlikely that inadequate financial resources alone trigger mental health conditions. But then again, poverty isn’t just that, is it? Poverty is usually defined by precise mathematical formulas that draw a poverty line. But poverty may encompass more than just an absolute number and a bottom line. Living in poverty means denial of services, continuous stress, and lack of autonomy. When we think of poverty in its greater definition, we can more easily understand its connection with mental health conditions. 

It has been theorized that the connection between poverty and mental health can be described as a two-way street or an ongoing cycle. Poverty can increase the chance to develop mental illness and mental illness may increase the chances of living below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, people with major depression in the U.S. spend $10,836 a year on average to manage their condition! Mental health care in America is very expensive, keeping treatment – and a hope for a better life – out of reach for many. We, at Antidote, started a movement to counter just that. We believe that health care should be accessible to all. 

So, next time you experience depression or symptoms of any of the other condition we treat, reach out to us. From assessment to treatment of common conditions, we offer affordable, stigma-free, and quality mental health care. If you are concerned about the mental health state of a loved one, Antidote allows you to show how much you care by gifting them with a one-time appointment with a board-certified doctor. Fewer than half of Americans with mental health concerns receive help. Let’s change that together. Let’s give the gift of health and leave no one behind. 

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