Social services beware: Addressing poverty alone can't undo the effects of poverty
You wake up in the morning after spending the night sleeping in your car. Your two children are awake in the back seat and both are looking pretty hungry, although they’ve learned that food may not around today. How do you feel at this moment?
You’d probably the same way that many people who are living at or below poverty level are feeling everyday; stressed, anxious, depressed and possibly even suicidal.
A report in the April issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry by Dr. Jitender Sareen and others presents data from a 3 year study citing the connection between poverty and mental disorders. This isn’t news, there has been a considerable amount of research on this issue, but it is further proof that there is a clear relationship between having basic needs go unfulfilled and anxiety, substance abuse, and psychological pain.
According to this report the participants with a household income of less than $20,000 annually had a greater risk for experiencing mood disorders, depression and anxiety. The risk was much lower for those with incomes higher than $70,000.
Very little money means limited access to basic needs. According to a report by the Child Trends Databank, children living at and below poverty level are three times more likely to be living in a neighborhood described as not being safe all of the time. Not living in a safe neighborhood and experiencing food insecurity has been linked to psychological stress in children and adults.
The solution to this outcome should be easy right? If social service programs focus on bringing those in need access to their basic needs the reports of mental pain will decrease. Yes and no.
The idea that helping families get job, find shelter, and have food will be the end of their troubles is one that service organizations, policy makers, funders, and communities have banked on for some time – but the connection is ambiguous.
Sareen’s findings show that those who had an increase of income during the three year span did not experience any relief or improvement in their mental health. Even with an increase of money in their households, they didn’t feel any better.
It may be that once physical deprivation has led to mental health issues, providing sufficient food and shelter isn’t enough to undo the damage. Social service programs that work to provide the basics, job, housing and food are doing good work – but there needs to be continued support for mental health services as well.
Without it, we’re only addressing part of the problem we really want to solve.
-- Makenna Berry
Photo by Zack Clark