Poverty may drive mental illness, study suggests

Poverty May Drive Mental Illness

Several stigmas surround mental health care, and all of them make it more difficult for people to connect with the treatments they need. All medical issues require prompt care, but mental health services often necessitate a more extensive treatment plan that improves patients’ quality of life. Regular meetings with counselors, medication plans lasting years and other facets of mental health care can make it very time-consuming and expensive.

Poverty is one of the many challenges that people with mental disorders face, according to a study conducted by researchers at Boston College and Tufts University. Published in the journal Developmental Psychology, the study found that children raised in poor housing situations – such as the homes of people living below the poverty line – often develop emotional and behavioral issues later in life. The study may help identify new targets in the ongoing attempt to address the holes in the nation’s mental health care system.

Defining poverty
According to the Institute for Research on Poverty, families that earned less than $23,492 in 2012 were classified as living below the poverty line. Almost 15 percent – 45 million – of all Americans live in poverty, while some states like Mississippi and Arkansas are home to more drastic numbers.

Raising a family or finding a good living situation is hard enough without any steady source of income, but developing a mental illness can make things near impossible to fix. According to the Boston College and Tufts University study, this is the situation that millions of children who live in impoverished families face every day.

Over six years, the researchers reviewed data from more than 2,400 children, teens and young adults that had been collected as part of a survey distributed to applicable participants in neighborhoods throughout Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, Texas. With responses from nearly 83 percent of all people surveyed, the researchers then compiled their data. The survey included questions on home safety, information on family composition and educational performance.

The findings indicated that poor housing negatively corresponded to emotional and educational development among poor children. Growing up in impoverished families caused those from age 2 to 21 years old to show lower scores in reading and math skills, as well as in various metrics related to proper emotional growth. In particular, external factors related to poverty, such as family-imposed restrictions on utility use, unsafe neighborhoods that cause stress and improper facility maintenance contribute to threaten the mental health status of impoverished children.

Digging in
“Through no fault of their own, children and teens whose families live in substandard housing are paying a steep price in terms of their emotional and behavioral well being,” Rebekah Levine Coley, Ph.D., professor of education at Boston College and lead author of the study, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  “We know that environmental stress can come not just from outside the home, but from the home itself when we consider the impact of living day to day with exposed wiring, peeling paint, rodents, poor sanitation and a lack of natural light, or with frequent moves from home to home.”

Figures from the study indicated that more than 2 million children in the U.S. live in conditions that could be described as unsafe by the parameters set by Coley and her colleagues. Though it may be unreasonable to wipe out both mental health issues and poverty in one blow and addressing both will take time and determination, that does not make the process unworthy of officials’ best efforts.

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