As a society, we’ve been pulling back the layers on the social, economic and physical effects of poverty for decades. But there’s something that often gets overlooked: the profound impact poverty can have on mental wellbeing.
The inability to make the rent, pay bills and keep food on the table can take a toll on mental health — one that can lead to the development of chronic stress and even the onset of psychological trauma.
There are for 4 primary ways poverty and trauma are linked, including physical traumas like violence and emotional traumas such as neglect.
1. Physical health, poverty, and PTSD
On a surface level, living a healthy lifestyle consists of getting enough sleep, incorporating fruits and vegetables into your diet and carving out approximately 30 minutes a day for physical activity — all things that can be challenging to do for individuals that fall at or below the Federal Poverty level.
Research shows that those living in poverty have less access to affordable, healthy food options and live in higher crime areas, which deters them from spending time outdoors and being active.
Additionally, many diseases can go undiagnosed for long periods of time simply because patients might not be able to afford doctors’ visits or treatment. These factors can lead to the early onset of life-threatening illnesses like heart disease or further progression of terminal diseases such as cancer if it goes undetected.
The Harvard Heart Letter found that patients suffering from heart disease frequently also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of a heart attack or surgical procedures.
Without access to the necessary resources for proper self-care, people in poorer communities are more susceptible to developing chronic diseases—making them at risk to develop PTSD as a result.
2. Malnourishment and emotional trauma
Most important to optimal physical health is having enough to eat. Yet Feeding America estimates that 41 million people in the United States face food insecurity.
But beyond having a number of crippling physical effects, malnourishment or hunger can have a lasting psychological impact.
A study originally published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that adults who suffered malnutrition as children were more likely to develop neuroticism and reported higher levels of anxiety, shyness, and vulnerability. Additionally, those suffering from food insecurity are also prone to develop eating disorders.
Not having enough food or going without food for long periods of time is distressing and, in some cases, traumatizing, especially if the lack of food is coupled with other sources of chronic trauma such as abuse or neglect, urban or domestic violence, or is the result of ongoing social-political conflicts like war.
3. Poverty as a catalyst for traumatic events
Out of the 4 ways poverty and trauma are linked, the exposure to violent events in light of socio-economic status is probably one of the most common ways impoverished individuals experience trauma.
Individuals living in impoverished neighborhoods are more likely to the victims of violent and intrusive crime. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people living in households at the poverty level were more than twice as likely to be the victims of violent crimes.
Essentially, being poor makes someone more vulnerable to experiencing a traumatic incident.
4. Traumatic Loss
With a greater chance of being the victim of a violent crime, there also comes a higher chance of being the loved one of that victim in an impoverished community.
JAMA Internal Medicine conducted a study in 2016 that revealed African American men living below the poverty line were at 2.66 times a higher risk of morality than African American men living above the poverty level.
That also means that their family members were at a higher risk of experiencing traumatic loss — a loss that is unexpected or sudden.
The 4 ways poverty and trauma are linked list above are just scratching the surface of an issue that is becoming more relevant in modern American society. More and more, statistics are showing that there exists a correlation between poverty and mental health.
While poverty may not be the sole source of trauma, it makes someone more susceptible to experiencing it, which is why it’s important to seek help.