Although poverty is not the only determining factor influencing the status of a person’s mental health and mental health doesn’t always directly correlate with poverty, one often comes with the other. The World Health Organization has made it fairly clear that the two interact closely (and correcting one might lead to impacting the other for good). Although poverty and mental illness represent a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, there are a few things that we do know about how they affect each other and what puts certain people at risk.
First let’s talk about how mental illness can often move a person closer to poverty. According to Entin, “When people are mentally ill, they are at increased risk of becoming and/or staying poor. They have higher health costs, difficulty getting and retaining jobs, are less productive at work, and suffer the social stigma and isolation of mental illness.” For example, a person with depression might need to take more unplanned days off for self-care, leading them to be seemingly unreliable to their employer.
More severe mental illnesses would lead to greater challenges to finding and keeping consistent work.
Living in poverty can also play a large part in a person’s mental health. Essentially, “…stressful living conditions place people at higher risk of developing a mental disorder.” (WHO, 2007) Research done separately by Dr. Laurence Knott and Jack Carney shows that this is especially true of stress about finances, resulting in social disconnection and intra-family alienation. The reality is, most people don’t have access to a Private GP and are purely reliant on the NHS. One study from the same World Health Organization report cited above found that “People experiencing hunger or facing debts are more likely to suffer from common mental disorders.”
Living in poverty can be particularly harmful to a child’s mental health. Children living in poverty suffer from higher levels of stress (Templeton, 2013) which prevent them from proper brain development. (Knott, 2016) This stress can lead children to have “symptoms of anxiety, depression, lying and aggressive behavior.” (Templeton, 2013)
This interconnectivity of mental health and poverty makes an economic case to prevent the downward spiral that ill mental health that can lead to. Although whether or not alleviating poverty leads to alleviating mental illness is still under scrutiny, there is evidence of ways to break the cycle of poverty and mental illness. In the case of children, for example, having supportive parents reduces the effect stress has on brain development. Better brain development leads to lesser risk of mental illness. Another interesting finding that influences mental health has been about the makeup of the neighborhood a person is living in. A study in the UK found that neighborhoods that have high income inequality also experience better mental health. The researchers speculate that this is due to the neighborhoods’ valuable social capital (Knott, 2016). This idea of the power of social capital was reinforced with a study that found people “who had a strong sense of cohesion within their neighborhood…had higher levels of mental well-being.”
One key finding is about effective interventions. Programs aimed at alleviating poverty had little effect on a person’s mental health. However, programs that effectively focused on mental health treatment had a direct positive impact on a person’s economic status. This impact places people into a cycle of continued improvement, bringing them out of both mental illness and poverty.