May 13, 2020 1:00 PM

Poverty in Our Area: Poverty and mental health

Posted May 13, 2020 1:00 PM

By Patricia Jones, Task Force on Poverty

Poverty affects a person’s physical health. Medical care is avoided. Nutritious food costs a lot more than processed, fried food. Limited access to gyms, parks, equipment, and athletic teams means that many cannot get needed exercise. There is also a strong link between poverty and mental health, and May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Poverty in and of itself creates high levels of stress. A small amount of stress can be good and can increase performance or cause us to achieve more. But chronic stress, too much stress over a long period of time, affects both physical and mental health. 

Not only do people in poverty question their self worth, they are also vulnerable to other problems. Food insecurity is an issue. People may be stuck in substandard housing or in violent neighborhoods, or face eviction if they cannot pay rent. Poor women and their children, the largest group who live in poverty, often have to tolerate domestic violence. All of these create tremendous amounts of stress. 

Poverty can strain a person’s mental health. Many low-income people work long hours, often at multiple jobs, to support their families and pay their bills. Demands at home can be overwhelming, leaving little time to rest and recharge. This stress often leads to depression and may cause anxiety attacks and abusive behavior. Research shows that more than thirty percent of individuals living in poverty suffer from depression, double the rate for the total population. 

Substance abuse and addiction are strongly linked to mental illness and to poverty. Addiction to alcohol or other drugs changes the brain’s chemistry and alters the areas of the brain responsible for thinking, decision making, and pleasure. People with mental health issues like bipolar disorder or depression often self-medicate. Drugs or alcohol numb their pain. Over time, they need substances to feel normal.

People who have mental health issues also have higher health costs. It is difficult for anyone to navigate the system to get help needed, and this is definitely true for those with mental health issues. They may not be insured, especially if they don’t have full-time jobs. Their insurance may not cover counseling, or they may not be able to leave work for sessions with a therapist. It is expensive to treat mental illness.

While living in poverty often causes mental illness, the reverse is also true. Mental illness often causes people to live in poverty and is a significant cause of homelessness in America. People with serious mental illness are stigmatized and face discrimination, so they have difficulty getting and retaining jobs. People with mental illness also frequently experience social isolation and may not have the support structure of family and friends. 

No single factor causes mental illness, but poverty is a trigger when combined with genetics, substance use, health issues, or adverse events like job or relationship loss or a traumatic event in the family.

Next week we will look at the stress caused by COVID-19 and isolation and talk about strategies to stay mentally healthy. 

The Task Force on Poverty had scheduled a Bridges Out of Poverty conference in June. This organization has a global reputation for helping understand the lives of those who live in poverty. We have made the decision to postpone the Alliance conference until June, 2021.