In recent years, the deaths of successful entertainers showed that the rich and famous are not impervious to mental health problems. Mental illness played a role in the deaths of Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and Chester Bennington. All three were adored by countless fans. All three were millionaires. All three were depressed. However, mental illness is more closely associated with poverty. Yet, when poor people experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or a range of other mental health disorders, these individuals do not make headlines. They simply become a statistic. Multiple studies have examined the role poverty plays in mental illness. These reports often come to similar conclusions: Depression significantly affects people in poverty. The combination of mental health problems and poverty can increase the risk of developing addiction, which amplifies the importance of seeking treatment.

The Link Between Mental Illness and Poverty

For years, researchers have examined the relationship between poverty and mental health problems. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a federal agency that often analyzes many aspects of mental illness, addiction and co-occurring disorders, which involves both diseases. In 2016, SAMHSA released a report about the association between mental health disorders and poverty. The report indicated that 9.8 million adults in the United States had a serious mental illness in 2015. Nearly 25 percent of these individuals were living below the poverty line. A serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that significantly interferes with or limits a major life activity. Major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are examples of serious mental illnesses. According to a SAMHSA report, adults ages 26 or older were more likely than those at or above the federal poverty line to experience a serious mental illness. Living near or below the poverty line increases the risk of significant mental health problems.
According to a Gallup poll, depression disproportionately affects people in poverty. The 2011 poll found that about 31 percent of individuals who are living in poverty and 15.8 percent of those not in poverty reported having been diagnosed with depression. Representatives at Gallup are unsure why people in poverty are about twice as likely as others to experience depression. In some cases, poverty can lead to depression. In other instances, depression can bring about poverty. Living below the poverty line while dealing with mental health problems creates serious challenges. For example, adults with mental illness who are living in poverty often face decreased productivity, higher health care costs and poor overall health. A low income causes people to struggle to pay for housing, food, childcare and healthcare, and having a mental health disorder makes completing everyday tasks more difficult. Grappling with poverty and mental illness can also increase the chances of experiencing homelessness.

How Poverty Influences Mental Illness

Poverty can strain a person’s physical and mental health. Many low-income people work long hours to pay bills and provide for their families. This lifestyle can impose immense stress and reduce a person’s cognitive ability. A 2013 study published in the journal Science found that poverty impedes cognitive functioning, which can lead to poor decision-making. In the study, low-income people who thought about financial issues in their lives performed poorly on a series of cognitive tests. Researchers discovered that poverty creates a mental burden comparable to losing 13 IQ points. Small amounts of stress can increase performance. High levels of stress, however, can have the opposite effect. Too much stress for an extended period of time can lead to chronic stress, which increases the risk of contracting viral infections or developing mental illnesses like depression. No single factors causes mental illness. Psychologist Crick Lund of the University of Cape Town in South Africa told NPR that poverty is just one factor that contributes to mental health problems. Other influences might include adverse life events, genetics or substance use. For people with an existing mental illness, poverty can exacerbate psychological distress. For example, someone with depression who lives in poverty after losing his or her job may experience chronic stress that amplifies depressive thoughts.

How Mental Illness Contributes to Addiction

Addiction is a mental illness that changes the brain’s chemistry. Drugs and alcohol alter areas of the brain responsible for thinking, decision-making and pleasure. Individuals with a severe substance use disorder act compulsively, struggle to handle everyday tasks and endure a range of health problems. Mental illness is inextricably linked to addiction. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 20 percent of people in the United States with an anxiety or mood disorder also have a substance use disorder. Conversely, 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder deal with dependence or addiction. People with mental health disorders, like bipolar disorder, often self-medicate using drugs or alcohol to numb their physical or psychological pain. Over time, they may rely on these substances to feel normal. When individuals who regularly engage in substance use exhibit compulsive behaviors despite the negative consequences, addiction may be present. Drug use is more prevalent in poor communities than in wealthier ones. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use is nearly three-times more common among families with an annual household income below $20,000 than among families making $50,000 or more each year.
In some cases, co-occurring disorders can lead to poverty. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that young adults with depression and a substance use disorder have a greater chance than those without either disorder of grappling with unemployment and low household income, which are linked to poverty.

The Importance of Treatment

Many people with co-occurring disorders fail to seek treatment for a variety of reasons. While the federal government has made efforts to expand access to treatment, many residents living in poor communities avoid rehab because of the stigma, perhaps believing that simply being known to have sought treatment will make it harder for them to find employment. Mental illness and addiction are heavily stigmatized in the United States. People struggling with one or both of these disorders often feel too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about their problems with loved ones or counselors. This reluctance is a major barrier to treatment among many Americans, including those living in poverty. However, treatment saves lives. The Recovery Village offers evidence-based treatment to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. With facilities located across the United States, The Recovery Village provides patients with detox services, inpatient care and aftercare resources. If you have a mental health or substance use disorder, call The Recovery Village today.
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Mental Illness and Poverty: A Depressing Reality
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Matt Gonzales

About Matt Gonzales

Matt Gonzales is an award-winning content writer. A former journalist, he is dedicated to spreading awareness about substance misuse and sharing inspiring stories of people in recovery. He lives in Orlando, Florida, with his wife and son.

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