Poverty & Mental Health in Children and Young Adults

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For many children and young adults, the stress of growing up is already hard enough. So when adding into the mix absolute or relative poverty, it can get even worse. The effects of poverty can have a harmful effect on children and young adults mental health and wellbeing. Poverty has been proven to lead to anxiety and depression, as well as leading to more stress than someone who isn’t in poverty(McLeod & Shanahan 1993). The situations that someone in poverty faces are stressful, such as not knowing if you’re going to be able to pay rent, not knowing how much food you can afford, and having to work long hours for low pay. People in poverty are also more likely to experience difficult or traumatic and/or violent experiences (Askarinam 2016).

They have an effect on the mental health of people in poverty, specifically teens and young adults who are living through these situations. The purpose of this paper is to explore why poverty creates mental health problems in children and young adults, and what solutions can be made to fix this social issue.

Being poor brings on a lot of stressors that people who aren’t poor do not have to deal with(McLeod & Shanahan 1993). Being poor also means that they do not have access to the mental health support available. According to an article by the Atlantic, 40% of students in public schools do not receive the mental health care that they need (Askarinam 2016). Therapy costs in the United States vary by city and state, but the average cost is between $60 and $120 per session(Thervo 2020). The cost of therapy and medication is expensive, meaning poor students, either in elementary, secondary or college, have to rely on the free counseling services that the school provides. Often those are underfunded and understaffed, so students have to go without them(Askarinam 2016). Healthline reports that 1 in 3 college students are suffering from a mental illness (Berger 2018). The majority of them are put on a waitlist for the services, since there are not enough counselors. To add to this, there are only a limited number of sessions available. At DePaul Univeristy, they only get eight to ten sessions for a small fee of $5 per session (DePaul University n.d). This is not enough sessions for a student to fully get the help that they need. Therapy needs multiple sessions to work, and often the first few sessions can be introductions between the therapist and the patient (Thervo 2020). With the cost of therapy so expensive in America, only people who are relatively wealthy or have quality health insurance are able to talk through their problems.

In K-12 there is still this issue of adequate counseling services. The article from the Atlantic talks about how 40% of the students aren’t getting the help they need. It also explains how witnessing abuse or other traumatic events can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. Early intervention is the way to stop this issue, but students do not have the resources in the school to have an intervention.

In the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, they did a study called “Poverty and Adolescent Mental Health” that explains how adolescents deal with poverty. As they’re older and starting to join the workforce, they see it a little clearer how it affects their parents’ lives (Dashiff 2009). Poor teens are more likely to have depression and anxiety, and they are more likely to get into trouble because of it and their financial situation (Dashiff 2009).

It is important to mention how race affects poverty. In the article “Poverty, Parenting and Children’s Mental Health by Jane McLeod, it explained that “Poor hispanics and blacks are more likely than poor whites to live in isolated, urban ghettos. Blacks enter poverty with fewer economic resources than whites, and they are less likely to have family members with resources to loan. Finally, poor black women are less likely than poor white women to be married.” (McLeod & Shanahan 2016; 352). Even though McLeod also states in the article that parenting and mental health are the same between races when they are both poor (McLeod & Shananhan 2016; 351), it is still relevant that people of color are more likely to not have as many economic advantages (McLeod & Shanahan 2016). But poor white kids are more likely to live amongst and go to school with richer white kids, which can lead to social problems for the child as they’re an outsider because of their class (McLeod & Shanahan 2016; 351.)

Poverty has a negative effect on mental health, and makes it harder to access mental health care. So the solutions should be to create more therapists and counselors in schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 was signed into law by then president Barack Obama (US Department of Education n.d). It is a continuation of the No Child Left Behind Act, and states that every student has equal opportunities in school. This includes counselors. It gives money to the schools to provide adequate counseling services for the students, as well as positive environments for them (Askarinam 2016).
Losing a job causes relative poverty that can negatively affect the mental health of the person losing it. Studies have shown that losing one’s job causes severe emotional distress (Kuruvilla & Jacob 2007). Not having a job also means that one does not have the resources to access mental health services to alleviate the depression and anxiety that they are feeling because of their lost job. Those who are already mentally ill also have difficulty keeping a job (Kuruvilla & Jacob 2007). This causes more distress to them, as they have to deal with the stress of not having an income. The cost of treating mental illness is also quite expensive, which leads them to worse situations (Kuruvilla & Jacob 2007). A solution to this is to increase funding for low-income mental health services. If mental health services are easier to access and affording them doesn’t add to the stress of being poor, it would alleviate many problems for low-income mentally ill individuals. It also helps the workforce, as it creates jobs for counselors, and helps mentally ill individuals continue to function in society.

Adding more counselors in schools is another way to help with mental health. Starting early and giving children the tools to deal with their mental health is important. Adding more counselors and mental health resources in K-12 settings will help students who are suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health problems that are caused or exacerbated by the stress of poverty.

The solution seems to be adding more mental health counselors in schools and colleges, as well as having more low-income accessible therapists and counselors. How these solutions can be implemented in America are similar to the Every Student Succeeds Act and other grants for mental health services. The United States government should give more funding to mental health services. The legislative branch of the government should get involved, passing a bill to allow more funding to the United States health system for low cost mental health services.

These laws would be either state by state, or the whole United States. It would have a very large budget, because of the need to pay the new therapists and counselors, as well as helping train them for the situations they’ll need to handle. It also would include paying the staff of the counseling services. They need a building and staff to keep the building running, and the budget would have to help pay for those services. There doesn’t have to be a new bureau created for this to work, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is an existing bureau for mental health issues and substance abuse (National Council n.d.).

There are a few grants that already exist within this bureau, such as the Mental Health Block Grant. It covers employment and housing finding, therapy, and rehabilitation for those with mental illness. It has an existing budget of $483.7 million (National Council n.d.). There is also the Mental Health First Aid program, which is a program made to educate people on mental health issues. It has a budget of $15 million (National Council n.d.). Although these are large numbers, compared to the relative size of the United States budget at $4.829 trillion for the 2021 fiscal year, (Amadeo 2020) It is only a small part of the existing United States budget. By adding a few extra million dollars, it could help fund the budget of more counseling services. This increase can come from higher taxes on the different income brackets, as well as an increase in personal spending of the citizens of a state.

The efficiency will be shown by how many people a therapist can help, and if it is actually making a difference for people. First, there will be more people with depression and other mental illnesses. This is because they will finally have access to the diagnosis and treatment. But seeing less people who cannot work because of mental health, and seeing how people are dealing with it better can show the effectiveness of the program. This can be measured with satisfaction surveys after a year of treatment. It can also be shown by asking the therapists how they feel about the program, and if they’ve seen a change in their patients.

Mental health issues exist in all groups of people no matter their social class. But the effects of poverty have a negative effect on mental health, and it is harder for people who are in poverty to get the treatment they need to deal with the harmful effects of poverty. By creating adequate mental health services that people in poverty can access, and giving more counselors, therapists and mental health services in schools, these effects can be treated and people in poverty can get the help they need to deal with their lives.

McLeod, Jane D., and Michael J. Shanahan. “Poverty, Parenting, and Children’s Mental Health.”
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Leah Askarinam, National Journal. “Schools in Poor Areas Have More Students with Mental
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“Federal Budget for Mental Health & Addictions.” National Council,

Amadeo, Kimberly. “Secrets of the Federal Budget Revealed.” The Balance, The Balance, 25
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Megan Virginie Stephenson

Megan Virginie Stephenson

Lover of people, pop culture, and sociology.