Can Poverty be a Precursor to Mental Illness?

I explore the relationship between mental illness and poverty, and how poverty can be a precursor to mental illness.

Poverty Can Be a Precursor to Mental Illness

Growing up, my parents taught me that poor people were lazy and took money from the government. As I became educated, I learned that people could find themselves in poverty because of terrible life events. Such events include sickness, death, and increases in rent.  I always thought mental illness was a precursor to poverty. By reading news and studies after scouring the internet, I’ve learned that poverty can be a precursor to mental illness.

Poverty Inflicts Such a Massive Cognitive Load

There has been groundbreaking research that shows that poverty inflicts such a massive cognitive load on individuals that they have very little mental bandwidth to do many things that can lift them out of poverty such as go to night school, search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time. This research concluded through a series of experiments that were conducted by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick.

In these experiments, the researchers primed low–income people to think about financial problems through a series of cognitive tests. The low-income people performed poorly on the tests, and their mental load was akin to losing an entire night’s sleep. A similar metaphor is that living in poverty imposes a psychological burden that is similar to losing 13 IQ points, or the cognitive difference between an alcoholic and healthy adults.

Poverty Is Not As Simple As You Think

This conclusion is critical because it undermines the belief that poor people, through their weakness, are responsible for their poverty or with enough effort they can pull themselves out of poverty. The research shows that the reality of poverty is it’s super challenging to accomplish fundamental life skills. According to one of the authors of the study, being poor means, “coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.”

Poverty Impacts Mental Illness Both Directly and Indirectly

In a 2005 study, researcher Chris Hudson looked at health records of 34,000 patients who had been hospitalized at least twice for mental illness over a period of 7 years. He looked at whether or not the patients “drifted down” to less affluent ZIP codes following their first hospitalization.” He found that poverty—acting through economic stressors such as unemployment and lack of affordable housing— is more likely to precede mental illness except for patients with Schizophrenia. Hudson’s data says that “poverty impacts mental illness both directly and indirectly.”

More Money=Bigger Mental Health Boost

On an international level, researchers Johannes Haushofer and Jeremy Shapiro found in their study that when families in Kenya had cash grants averaging $700 (nearly twice the amount typically spent per person per year), they reported higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of depression than they did before they got money, which they could spend on anything. The larger the cash transfer, the more significant mental boost. It did not matter whether the money came in monthly installments or all at once.

Maybe Winning the Lottery Isn’t so Bad

In a study published by Swedish researchers, David Cesarini, Erik Lindqvist, Robert Ostling, and Bjorn Wallace, they disproved the belief that winning the lottery destroys lives as people make bad decisions about how to use the money. The researchers found that lottery winners used fewer anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills after collecting their payout. The increase in money may imply that they became happier.

How Poverty is an Antecedent to Mental Illness

There are a variety of ways that poverty is an antecedent to mental illness. These ways include:

Stress over prolonged periods of time 

In 2011, information published by the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study showed that generalized anxiety was most widespread in the most impoverished individuals of a particular sample population. Mothers, especially in developing countries, were troubled about their child’s safety, nutrition, and physical and social development. Regardless of their anxiety, they were compelled to make ends meet and continue to provide for their families by cooking food, cleaning the house, and ensure that utility bills were made on time. Other studies have found higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in people living in poverty. In a 2009 study, young children in Mexican households that received cash grants had lower cortisol levels compared to kids from families that did not get extra money. However, other studies have failed to find any changes in cortisol levels.

Improvised Living Conditions

Living in low SES often results in an inability to afford necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. It can culminate in poor living conditions and some situations homelessness due to the failure to provide rent or mortgage expenses. These situations can cause stress and dispose individuals to mental health conditions such as depression.

Limited Access to Health Care Services

A person living in poverty typically lacks financial resources that prevent them from accessing affordable health care services. This situation can prevent them from seeking help early and can result in the progression of their mental health condition.

The Attention Towards Children’s Needs are Decreased 

Parents living in poor households are likely to be preoccupied with several concerns. These concerns include debt, stress from work, and even the relationship with each other. These worries may lead away attention from the growth and development of their children, leading to detrimental effects on mental health. Children, between the ages of 6 to 12 years, of an estimated predominance of 0.4 to 2 percent of depression.

Solutions to Prevent Mental Illness from Affecting People in Poverty

There are potential solutions to prevent mental illness from affecting people living in poverty. They include:

        • Developed countries can address impoverished communities by increasing public disbursement on necessary facilities such as schools, hospitals, and transportation.
        • The government can play a role in supporting households by providing subsidies and grants for education and discounts for healthcare.
        • The government can encourage people living in poverty to access health care services by providing subsidies and increasing the distribution of local clinics. It is also essential to have regular monitoring and sampling of mental illness in impoverished areas.
        • Access to services that help women in proper care and upbringing of children can focus on the effects of excessive stress on children. Also, parenting programs and reliable child care services can help children living in poor conditions receive the care that they need.

Not Cure-All Solutions

I will preface that these are not cure-all solutions. Poverty and mental illness are ever-changing issues that are dependent on the environment, the individual, and the culture. When discussing poverty, one must also consider psychological disease because both matters strongly affect each other.




Psych Central

The Borgen Project

By Jim Fischer (Flickr: Homeless in Sugamo 2) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons