How Poverty Affects Mental Health

-By Sania Patel


Mental health is described as the emotional wellbeing of a person, as it measures their ability to handle stress, everyday tasks, and situations varying in degrees of difficulty and demand. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more thoroughly describes mental health as the

“ emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”

Mental health illnesses and issues are widespread from Asia to the Americas but are especially prominent in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) recently conducted a study that measured one in five U.S. adults to live with a mental illness - 52.9 million in 2020. The mental illnesses experienced are categorized by either Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI).

AMI encompasses all recognized mental illnesses, while SMI is a smaller and more severe subset of AMI. Any Mental Illness (AMI) is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. AMI can lead to severe impairment, although conditions can range from mild to moderate. Serious Mental Illness (SMI) describes mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders that result in serious functional impairment. SMI often is concentrated on people who experience disabilities due to their mental health status, as this type of illness substantially interferes with or limits one or more major activities.

In 2020, the NIH estimated that there were 52.9 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with AMU. This is 21 percent of all U.S. adults, 25.8 percent of females, and 15.8 percent of males. Young adults, ages 18 through 25 had a higher prevalence of AMI (30.6 percent) compared to adults ages 26 through 49 (25.3 percent). The NIH estimated that there were 14.2 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with SMI. This number represented 5.6 percent of all U.S. adults. Similar to AMI, the prevalence of SMI was higher among females than males - 7.0 percent compared to 4.2 percent. Young adults, ages 18 through 25, had the highest prevalence of SMI, 9.7 percent, compared to adults ages 26 through 49 - at 6.9 percent.

No matter the type of mental illness, mental health issues are much more prominent among poorer areas. The Psychiatric Times states,

“ Poverty in childhood is associated with lower school achievement; worse cognitive, behavioral, and attention-related outcomes; higher rates of delinquency, depressive and anxiety disorders; and higher rates of almost every psychiatric disorder in adulthood. Poverty in adulthood is linked to depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, psychological distress, and suicide.”

The article goes on to describe the separate issues of poverty that contribute to greater mental health disparities, including increased financial stress, violence, and limited access to professional health care.

To backtrack, poverty is defined as the state in which one lacks usual or socially acceptable amounts of money or material possessions. Britannica writes that poverty is said to exist when people lack the means to satisfy their basic needs. In other words, poverty encompasses the idea of extreme scarcity of basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing. Poverty is prevalent everywhere, in some areas more noticeable than others. Measured by global national income (GNI) per capita, Africa is immediately seen as the poorest area in the world. Following closely are Latin America and Asia. On the opposite of the spectrum is Australia, North America, and Western Europe. The gross domestic product (GDP) values closely follow this trend.

Poor nations, better termed as developing nations, suffer from similar hindrances that come with the effects of poverty. The effects of poverty affect the social, environmental, and economic conditions surrounding the people. These effects can lead to lifelong damages to people’s mental health. The U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, highlights a study conducted in Glasgow, Scotland. The study was done to research the correlation between poverty and poor mental health. A direct quote from the study shares,

“Poverty and deprivation are key determinants of children’s social and behavioral development and adult mental health. In Scotland, individuals living in the most deprived areas report higher levels of mental ill-health and lower levels of well-being than those living in the most affluent areas. In 2018 for example, 23% of men and 26% of women living in the most deprived areas of Scotland reported levels of mental distress indicative of a possible psychiatric disorder, compared with 12 and 16% of men and women living in the least deprived areas. There is also a clear relationship between area deprivation and suicide in Scotland, with suicides three times more likely in the least than in the most deprived areas.”

Mental health illnesses are more common in impoverished areas for several reasons. First off, poverty causes massive amounts of financial stress. Financial stress describes the emotional tension that is specifically related to money. People often face financial stress when there is an understood decrease in income. The decrease in income can cause relationships to fracture and can further lead to sleep deprivation and decreased appetite. Financial stress fuels feelings of anxiety, depression, and desperation; these emotions contribute to poor mental health.

Poverty can also affect mental health, as it can cause unprecedented violence and a quick temper. Due to economic stress and the inability to secure basic needs - food, clothing, and shelter - many relationships can fracture due to the increased amount of hostile reactions. As relationships decay, people find less trust among others and try to focus on ways to physically render themselves free of the emotions associated with poverty. People facing poverty become irrational, angry, and isolated, as they try to blame others for their issues. These problems accumulate and eventually lead to worsened mental health, as the situation combines into a complex issue, difficult to sort through without access to a medical professional.

Finally, poverty causes increased usage of drugs and alcohol. Many people facing poverty often find themselves lacking security. To gain better clarity of their situation, it is common for them to overdose on drugs or develop an addiction to alcohol. Drugs and alcohol, when used too often, can worsen and stunt brain development, which can contribute to immature behavior, lack of understanding, and difficulty performing daily tasks. When abused, these substances can cause irrationality and an inability to control one’s emotions. Drugs and alcohol, when abused, can lead to addiction. As mental health worsens, people become more dependent on these substances, as their brains become rewired to desire these stimulants. This leads to a detrimental cycle in which worsening mental health leads to increased use of drugs and alcohol, which then further leads to mental health issues.

All in all, poverty greatly affects mental health as it leads to increased stress, depression, and anxiety, which can further contribute to an increased usage of drugs and alcohol. People facing poverty become stuck in a detrimental cycle of addiction, abuse, and worsening mental health, where they eventually dig themselves towards no return from their current standing. Developed nations, such as the U.S., should pay greater attention to their impoverished communities and supply easier access to medical health care professionals who can help those in need establish positive mental health. By increasing access to mental health care, those living in extreme poverty can find more hope and face a brighter future, by receiving guidance on the next steps to increase their living standards.