It comes as no surprise that people living in poorer countries are more often affected by various health conditions ranging from cardiovascular diseases to cancer. Numerous factors such as non-nutritious foods, financial stress, substance abuse or even environmental pollutants might be at play. Interestingly, poverty seems to have an effect on mental health, too. A large review of 115 studies has shown that among poor people mental disorders such as depression or anxiety are more common.
There are several factors associated with poverty that might increase the risk of developing a mental illness. Stress, malnutrition, increased risk of violence, lack of education and social exclusion are some of them. However, as mental health issues are often caused by an interplay of multiple genetic and external factors, it is hard to pinpoint a single poverty-related circumstance that might possibly pull the trigger.
The relationship between the mental health issues and poverty is a complex one. Not only are people living in poverty more likely to develop mental disorders but also people affected by a mental health condition are more likely to drift into poverty due to lost employment, school dropout, homelessness, stigma associated with their condition or the need to spend extra money on health care. How can this vicious circle be broken?
Although still sparse, there is some evidence for plausible solutions. A study published in the journal Annals of Global Health has addressed the relationship between the elevated stress levels and common mental disorders such as depression or anxiety in young Indian women. Interestingly, the study has shown that among women experiencing high levels of stress those that accomplished higher education were less likely to suffer from mental disorders. Although the underlying mechanism is not clear, the authors argue that it is possible that education enhances self-esteem and autonomy of women and equips them to better manage stress.
Another type of intervention that might eventually disrupt the cycle of poverty and mental health issues are cash transfers. Cash transfers given directly to the poor have already been adopted as a measure to combat poverty by some non-profit organizations as well as by some governments. A study from the University of North Carolina has found that the odds of depressive symptoms were reduced by almost a quarter among young people in Kenya that lived in households which received cash transfers. However, it appears that due to unknown reasons, this measure only benefits the psychological well-being of young men but not women.
There is no simple and straightforward way to eliminate poverty or to decrease the occurrence of mental disorders. Nevertheless, it is still important to understand how these two are intermingled and how they affect one another so that better solutions can be developed in the future.
Katarina Pankova is a dedicated neuroscientist, educator and an ambitious writer. She loves intellectual challenges, learning new things, travelling and dancing salsa. If she was given a magic stick, one of her first actions would be to free the mankind of violence, injustice and ignorance. For more information, check out her LinkedIn profile.