Think about the last time you were hungry. Maybe you were busy at work and lost track of time or you were running errands and put off eating until you got back home. Whatever the reason was, it probably left you feeling irritable and cranky until you were able to eat. Often when we’re hungry, all we can think about it food.
Now picture what it would feel like to be a child who has to go to school hungry because your family didn’t have enough money for food. Imagine trying to concentrate on what the teacher is saying while your stomach rumbles and you wonder if your teacher will be able to help you find some way to get lunch today. Imagine, not being able to have clean clothes or the supplies you need for school because your family can’t afford them. Or think about what it would be like to have to get yourself to school because both parents are at work or are not around to support you. Couple that with anxiety, depression, stress, or the effects of trauma and the complexities compound.
That is what life is like for so many children who live in poverty. In 2014, there were an estimated 46.7 million people living at or below the poverty line with 23% of the total population consisting of children under 18 who live in poverty. Not only do they struggle to have their basic needs met but they are also at risk for higher levels of mental illness, including anxiety. And unfortunately, even with the many services available, not every child has access to the mental health services they need, especially in low-income areas. The mental health services that many of us take for granted are often scarce in low-income areas or families do not know how to access them. In addition, research has found that children who live in poverty reported higher levels of parents with mental health issues and untreated mental health needs. Less than 15% of children with mental health needs receive treatment and even fewer successfully complete treatment.
A child’s mental health can be negatively affected just by growing up in poverty. According to the Urban Institute, recent research has shown that when children grow up in poverty, the stress of everyday living occupies most of the child’s (and parents’) cognitive functioning, meaning fewer cognitive resources are left for education. In other words, it’s hard to concentrate when you are hungry, stressed, exposed to trauma, and tired. This means that it may be more difficult for a student to pay attention in class and achieve his or her full potential.
Additionally, stress hormones can negatively affect a child’s brain development, according to the Urban Institute and can also affect their mental health. Exposure to prolonged stress has been shown to be linked to inflammation which can negatively affect both the child’s brain and body. One research study found that children growing up in low-income housing in Chicago experienced seven times greater levels of anxiety and worry than children nationwide. Children in low-income areas are at a greater risk of being exposed to trauma, abuse and neglect, violence, an unstable environment, and lack of adequate nutrition.
Clearly, there is a need for greater support for mental health awareness, screening, and treatment for children and families who live in poverty. Fortunately, there are concrete steps we can take to help increase access to mental health services including early childhood education programs, equipping teachers, educating pediatricians, addressing the stigma of mental illness, and modifying mental health services to better serve the needs of communities.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) recommends increasing the mental health support services available in low-income areas. The ADAA identifies research showing the positive effects of early childhood education programs on sensory-motor and psychosocial development. These positive effects include increases in confidence, social skills, motivation, better school retention, and improved academic performance. And these gains are important ingredients in helping children climb above the poverty line. Equipping teachers with mental health resources and tools they need to identify student who may benefit from mental health services is also helpful.
Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal also has several helpful recommendations including educating pediatrics in screening tools to help them better identify mental health needs and connect families with mental health professionals. This is particularly important because parents often bring their children to see their pediatrician first before consulting a mental health professional.
The journal article also recommends continuing to work to remove the stigma of mental illness and treatment. With a greater awareness of mental health and a reduced fear of mental health issues, families are more likely to seek treatment for their child’s needs.
And finally, the journal article encourages mental health clinics in low-income areas to modify their services to make support and treatment easier to access. For example, it is recommended that clinic hours be modified to accommodate the variety of work schedules. Clinics may want to consider offering early morning hours and late evening hours instead of a traditional nine to five schedule.
While there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to help children rise above the stressors of living in poverty, these changes can truly make a difference.