The United States has a deep-rooted and widespread issue with poverty, as some 38 million Americans struggle to meet their basic needs. Once you’re entrenched in poverty, it can be difficult to get out, since you lack access to the educational, financial, and social resources you need to do so. And just as wealth can be inherited, poverty can be passed on from generation to generation, trapping even more people in this vicious cycle.
Poverty has been linked to a variety of negative outcomes, ranging from homelessness to inadequate nutrition to poor academic performance. In addition to these devastating impacts, poverty may also have devastating effects on your mental health.
The effects of poverty may not dissipate once you’re no longer impoverished. Researchers have discovered that if you live in poverty as a child, you can experience psychological health consequences well into adulthood. To combat these effects and improve the nation’s overall mental health, it’s crucial to learn more about what, exactly, poverty can do to your mind, emotions, and behavior.
People who live in poverty are more vulnerable to stress and its health effects. The stresses of poverty are more intense, varied, and far-reaching than simple concerns about money. The systemic nature of poverty means that every aspect of life — even basic tasks, such as obtaining enough food to eat — is more difficult and that your body’s stress response may not be able to subside or calm down.
Simply put, poverty creates chronic stress, which is known to have a variety of serious consequences and side effects. Unlike short-term stressors, this type of stress is harder to escape. In other words, not only are you more likely to be impacted by this stress and its effects when you’re poor, but you’re also less likely to get a respite from it or overcome it.
Structural Damage to the Brain
A growing body of research indicates that living in poverty as a child can change the structure of your brain. In addition to impacting the regions of the brain associated with decision-making and self-control, poverty is thought to stunt the growth of the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory formation.
Parents and caregivers can mitigate these effects by providing a stimulating environment with increased exposure to enriching objects, such as books and musical instruments. However, some parents may be unable to afford this enrichment for their children; some may even run the risk of worsening their financial situation by doing so.
Early intervention is the best way to avoid these changes to the brain. If caught early enough, these damages can be reversed, but with long-term exposure to the stresses of poverty, researchers believe the damage could be permanent.
While poverty may not directly cause depression, it has been linked to higher instances of mental health issues. In fact, people who live in poverty are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who don’t. One recent study goes so far as to suggest that being impoverished can change your DNA, making you predisposed to develop depression.
Conversely, depression can contribute to poverty. If you have ongoing issues with depression, you may have trouble performing well on the job, and if you have serious depressive episodes, you may not be able to work at all. Further, treatment for depression might be inaccessible to you because of its high cost, which can worsen both your mental health and your finances.
Growing up in poverty can also increase your likelihood of developing a psychosis-spectrum disorder, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Children who grow up in low-income environments are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia later in life, even if they move into higher income levels. Additionally, countries with high levels of income inequality have a greater prevalence of schizophrenia — and income inequality in the U.S. increased steadily over the last several decades.
Much like depression, schizophrenia has a two-way relationship with poverty. If you have schizophrenia, it can be very difficult to live a healthy life without proper diagnosis and treatment. You may be unable to work, whereupon you turn to substances to calm your symptoms and develop comorbid mental health conditions. You could also experience stigma simply for having a psychosis-spectrum disorder, making it even more difficult to access the care and resources you need.
Substance Use Disorder
People of all income levels can develop substance use disorders and there is no direct connection between socioeconomic status and substance use. Though living in poverty does not directly cause substance use, it can expose you to environmental factors that make you more likely to use substances. For example, experiencing chronic stress or having a mental condition — both of which are more likely to affect those living in poverty — are two known risk factors for substance use disorder.
Some research suggests that substance use can fuel the cycle of poverty. If you live in poverty and develop a substance use disorder, you have fewer resources available to seek treatment. If your disorder grows more severe, you have to spend more money to buy more of your drug of choice and feel a similar effect. With less money, you run the risk of being unable to pay for essential items. If you become more dependent on the drug, you may be unable to hold down a job or keep a roof over your head, driving you deeper into poverty.
While many Americans don’t get enough high-quality rest, there is a major disparity in sleep between low- and high-income individuals. Whether you’re an early riser or a night owl, you’re three times more likely to experience poor sleep if you live below the poverty line. Poor or problematic sleep can be caused by some type of sleep disorder, but it can also be attributed to complex environmental factors and systemic issues related to poverty.
Getting an adequate amount of high-quality sleep is vital for your mental health. If you don’t get enough sleep, you could be at greater risk of developing a mental illness and have a harder time dealing with stress — both of which you’re already predisposed to if you live in poverty. If you already have a mental health condition, you’re even more likely to have problematic sleep, furthering the disruptive cycle.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
In addition to being at greater risk for negative psychological consequences, people who experience poverty may not have the tools and knowledge necessary to cope with the difficulties they face.
One study reports that impoverished individuals are more likely to use coping strategies that avoid or minimize problems, which increases the risk of amplifying the issue at hand. While you may be able to integrate helpful therapy practices into your daily life, this isn’t a replacement for mental health treatment. However, mental health services are largely inaccessible to some impoverished individuals due to logistics and cost barriers, and you may not know what coping mechanisms would be better for you or how to embrace them for your health.
Some researchers believe that mental health services should be offered in primary care settings to improve access for more patients. Meeting this goal requires effort from the professionals providing mental health treatment, but it’s likely easier for some than for others.
For instance, occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants already offer mental health support in their practices, since they take a holistic approach to health, and may be able to easily integrate services for impoverished clients. Primary care providers, however, may have to change how they do annual physicals so they can offer mental health screenings and support to their patients.
Effectively coping with the psychological impacts of poverty is the first step for individuals seeking to overcome these challenges. Further, by teaching children about mental health, you can work to help them live a healthier life. However, in the United States, poverty is a systemic problem and it will take a variety of resources, legislation, and support to truly address the root cause of these issues.
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