Childhood poverty leads to mental issues in adulthood, says study

Findings from a new study titled “Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being” has established that disadvantaged children grow up to face several mental health issues. The comprehensive research project, results of which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences (PNAS) in December 2016, observed 341 participants over a 15-year period (at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24). It highlighted, for the first time, the gradual and detrimental impact of impoverished upbringing. In addition to physical deficiencies, adult psychological issues are also linked to childhood poverty.  

The study found that poor children faced greater mental and emotional issues as adults than children who were raised in middle-class environments. Children growing up in poverty were also prone to disruptive social behavior such as intimidation and hostility during their adulthood. Such children also suffered from prolonged physical issues and deficiencies in short-term spatial memory. Gary W. Evans, author of the study said, “What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems.”

Underprivileged children face higher stress levels

According to Evans, children raised in poverty are subject to much higher stress levels. “With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it. And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So, for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure,” added Evans. The study also supplements the premise that their economic conditions do not change significantly after poor children reach adulthood. Evans has also stated that working hard within socially acceptable norms is no guarantor of economic success.

Four key areas – short-term spatial memory, helplessness, mental health and chronic physiological stress – were analyzed comprehensively during the study. For each of these cases, adults who grew up in poverty during childhood performed poorly compared to those from middle-class upbringings. Short-term memory directly impacts an individual’s learning skills and the ability to process new information and recall past events. Adults from impoverished backgrounds performed poorly on this test, conveying its close links with childhood poverty.

As per Evans, “This is an important result because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement.” When the participants were asked to solve a puzzle, adults who spent their childhood in poverty gave up much easily as they were more prone to taking stress. When their stress hormones and blood pressure were measured, these adults displayed a high level of stress.

Childhood poverty affects adult brain functions

Being raised in penurious conditions impacts how well the brain functions during adulthood. A previous study titled “Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on regulatory brain function in adulthood” conducted by a team of researchers from the Cornell University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Michigan and the University of Denver used brain imaging in the 49 participants, half of whom belonged to low income backgrounds. Researchers observed the participants from ages 9 to 24. When the participants turned 24, a test was conducted in which they had to control their negative emotions during the brain imaging process.

It was found that adults who had grown up in poverty were unable to subdue their negative reactions as compared to adults who were not raised in underprivileged conditions. Such children are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance misuse and impetuous behavior, including aggression.

Poverty cannot be eradicated, but improving mental health is possible

The study places emphasis on the fact that timely action is required to achieve tangible and positive results. In addition, it advocates the extension of economic support to increase the incomes of poor families, similar to the supplemental income under Social Security  which is provided to handicapped and senior citizens. According to Evans, “This is a societal issue, and if we decide to reallocate resources like we did with the elderly and Social Security, we could change the kind of data this study is showing.”

If you or someone you know is grappling with mental health disorders, it’s time to seek help from the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline to speak to mental health counselors in the U.S who have the experience and knowledge to understand every patient’s situation and suggest the best treatment. You can also call at our 24/7 helpline number 855-653-8178 or chat online to know about the best mental health rehabilitation centers near you.