Families in Poverty



In the United States, a person is considered “poor” if his or her income falls below a level necessary to meet basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter.  This minimum level is called “the poverty line.”   The link between poverty and mental health has been clearly established:  the lower one’s socio-economic status, the higher the individual’s chances for developing a mental health disorder.  The relatonship between poverty and mental health is complex and dynamic.  Poverty places people at risk for mental health concerns, and in turn mental health related problems increase the  risk of poverty.   This can create a self-perpetuating cycle that is difficult to break.

To understand the relationship between poverty and mental health problems, it is helpful to consider the issues that are closely associated with this relationship.  The following factors are highly correlated with both poverty and mental health challenges:

Hunger/Food Insecurity Food insecurity is a lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources.  Adults in households determined to be food insecure are so limited in resources that they are running out of food, reducing the quality of food their family eats, feeding their children unbalanced diets, or skipping meals so their children can eat.  Children living in food insecure homes are at greater risk for developmental delays, poor academic performance, increase in aggression, depression and behavioral problems.
Hopelessness Hopelessness is a common experience felt by those living in poverty.  Hopelessness develops over time as the sense that things won’t improve becomes a central theme in one’s mentality.  Chronic hopelessness can lead to a variety of mental health related concerns including depression and anxiety.
Substance Abuse Substance abuse and mental illness often co-occur.  Chronic stress and efforts to escape emotional hardship can easily lead to the use of alcohol or other drugs.  Those living in poverty are at increased risk for the development of substance abuse problems.
Homelessness The National Health Care for the Homeless Council states that the homeless poor are three to six times more likely to suffer from illness, including mental illness.
Poor Physical Health Poor physical health is a risk factor for the development of mental health problems as well as the development of poverty.  Healthcare costs often worsen a family’s economic condition or prevent people from seeking needed healthcare, setting up a viscious cycle of poor health and impoverished living.
Insecurity Poverty can be associated with an experience of social exclusion or isolation, and feelings of disempowerment, helplessness, and hopelessness, all of which may lead to a sense of chronic insecurity and anxiety.

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