Poverty And Children’s Mental Health

Evidence shows that 1 in 5 children from low socioeconomic status (SES) have a greater chance of experiencing a psychiatric disorder (Reiss, 2013). Reiss’ systematic review of socioeconomic inequalities and mental health problems among children and teens suggest there is a “need for individual-level early childhood interventions as well as reduction in socioeconomic inequalities at a societal level to improve mental health in childhood and adolescence” (Reiss, 2013). To implement successful interventions, we must first aim to understand factors contributing to the child’s poor financial environment to make adequate recommendations for policies and community development programs.

Hypothesis’ have been formulated to comprehend the correlation between poor mental health and SES. While some theorists may argue that one’s mental health status may be the root cause for poor SES, others view socioeconomic deprivation as a catalyst for mental health problems (Reiss, 2013). However, across the board both hypotheses argue that resources and policies must be in place in order to decrease childhood mental illness.

School settings have played a crucial part in connecting families from low-income communities to recourses that support the development and mental health of students (Cappella et al., 2008). Due to lack of funding and suitable policies, “prevention and intervention programs are difficult to implement and sustain, particularly in high poverty communities, and in many schools, mental health programs remain marginalized form school routines and structures” (Cappella et al., 2008). Children living in less financially conducive environments are at a larger risk to have deficits in academic, cognitive and verbal skills (Cappella et al., 2008). When a child lacks in those skills, they are less likely to understand and advocate for their own mental health needs.

“Education, achievement, and family structure in one generation can therefore be determinants of family income poverty and then children’s health and development in the next generation” (Yoshikawa et al., 2012). Parents are a child’s first role model and perhaps the most crucial element in securing the mental wellbeing of that child through the years. Children whose parents have endured poverty in their upbringing are more likely to experience it themselves which brings about a variety of mental health problems. In one study, participants who were from low SES demonstrated an increase of ongoing depression by the age of 14 (Yoshikawa et al., 2012). To avoid the inheritance of mental health illnesses, parents need to be equipped with learning and practice of healthy parenting as well as be provided with recourses to improve their SES. By doing so, parents can focus entirely on the development and mental health wellbeing of their child.

While some theorists believe that families at the poverty level can reach “an emotional equilibrium” once the surprise of their financial loss has set in (Mcleod et al., 1993). Families who have experienced loss demonstrate their stress to their children when they become less consistent in their parenting and discipline (Mcleod et al., 1993). “Rejection and hard discipline, in turn, are associated with poor goal orientation, low levels of self-adequacy and social competence and high levels of moodiness and conduct problems among children” (Mcleod et al., 1993). Children are emotional sponges, who because of their young age and lack of understanding of environmental stressors are unable to articulate why there’s been a change in their interactions with parents. Furthermore, children who spend most of their lives in low income households experience effects on emotional dependence, happiness and anxiety (Mcleod et al., 1993).

The effect of poverty on children’s mental health begs for drastic changes and improvements in resources and opportunities for families at or below socioeconomic status. “Societies need to recognize that economic levels do have important implications for both family functioning and child mental health but, equally, policy makers need to ensure that economic benefits actually have the intended psychological benefits” (Rutter ,2003). Parents who experience high levels of distress are more likely to react with harsh parenting (Mcleod et al., 1993). Living in poverty can have an affect on the children’s ability to succeed in areas of appropriate socialization as well as having access to adequate education and proper health care (Reiss, 2013). Children who are at a socioeconomic disadvantage can experience a significant delay in their development and social-emotional abilities (Reiss, 2013). To correct the cycle of children’s mental illness, as a response to living in poverty, it is proposed that parents are equipped with the knowledge and opportunities to improve their socio-economic status and understand in depth the consequences it has placed on the wellbeing of their children.

Throughout the United States, mental health services have worked diligently to address the mental health needs of their patients. However, while some may have easy access to these services, poor families do not and are less likely to set aside work to attend these services. An expansion of mental health services on school campuses can help bridge the overlap in number of enrolled students and their engagement in recommended services. One example is Positive Attitudes towards Learning in School (PALS), a school-based mental health service model that aims to improve the initiation and ongoing implementation of services in the classroom and in the home (Atkins et al., 2006). This would allow for services to be provided consistently at school and in the home when parents or teachers aren’t available for the delivery of those services (Atkins et al., 2006). Barriers to this approach may be the lack of funding to support programs within the schools and push back from school officials with concerns of classroom disruptions.

In retrospect, the cycle of poverty and childhood mental health illnesses is one that must be broken with an accumulation of resources and understanding of reasons for low socio-economic status. Children should have the chance to thrive, but not at the expense of their mental health, when they have stable emotional and financial environments that are favorable to their developmental growth. In order to do so, parents much have the tools and financial resources available to provide their children with that environments.


Atkins, M. S., Frazier, S. L., Birman, D., Adil, J. A., Jackson, M., Graczyk, P. A., … Mckay, M. M. (2006). School-Based Mental Health Services for Children Living in High Poverty Urban Communities. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 33(2), 146–159. doi: 10.1007/s10488-006-0031-9
Cappella, E., Frazier, S. L., Atkins, M. S., Schoenwald, S. K., & Glisson, C. (2008). Enhancing Schools’ Capacity to Support Children in Poverty: An Ecological Model of School-Based Mental Health Services. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 35(5), 395–409. doi: 10.1007/s10488-008-0182-y
Mcleod, J. D., & Shanahan, M. J. (1993). Poverty, Parenting, and Children’s Mental Health. American Sociological Review, 58(3), 351. doi: 10.2307/2095905
Reiss, F. (2013). Socioeconomic inequalities and mental health problems in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Social Science & Medicine, 90, 24–31. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.04.026
Rutter, M. (2003). Poverty and Child Mental Health. Jama, 290(15), 2063. doi: 10.1001/jama.290.15.2063
Yoshikawa, H., Aber, J. L., & Beardslee, W. R. (2012). The effects of poverty on the mental, emotional, and behavioral health of children and youth: Implications for prevention. American Psychologist, 67(4), 272–284. doi: 10.1037/a0028015

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