The relationship between mental health and poverty is complex. Poverty means more than lacking economic resources. In the United States, definitions of poverty vary with social, cultural, and political systems. Attempts to understand poverty from the perspectives of persons who experience it reveal that poverty is a multidimensional social phenomenon. Using an epidemiological, or scientific, mindset, poverty can mean low socio-economic status measured by social or income class.
According to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, multidimensional poverty often encompasses various aspects of someone’s life, including economic disenfranchisement, lack of quality education, inadequate living standards, disempowerment, poor quality of work, the threat of violence (even from authorities established to protect them), and living in areas that are environmentally hazardous. Universally, many individuals living below the poverty line internalize feelings of shame and being trapped in their current circumstances which reinforces their vulnerability, creating an intergenerational cycle of poverty and poor health.
The mental health effects of poverty are wide-ranging and reach across an individual’s lifespan:
Poverty can often intensify the experience of mental illness and may also increase the likelihood of the onset of mental illness. At the same time, experiencing mental illness may also increase the chances of living below the poverty line.
Poverty or severe financial hardship and mental health issues can affect any of us. The Gospel calls us to a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, to love our neighbors as ourselves. This means must listen to the needs of our brothers and sisters experiencing poverty and mental illness and empower them to seek the care and support they need to thrive. Further, our call to the common good demands that we take action to create a society in which the human dignity of all God’s children can be upheld, this includes, among others, access to quality healthcare, full employment with benefits, quality housing, and a healthy environment.
Each of us can take action to support those living in poverty and/or experiencing mental illness. Here are a few ways you can take action.
PRAY / EDUCATE / ADVOCACY / in LOVE (PEAL – which means “loud ringing of a bell”)
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” – James Baldwin
Claire Wills Shynett worked as a health care professional for over 45 years, advocating for individuals with both mental and physical disabilities to live with dignity as fully functioning, participating, and contributing members of our community. Claire now works with many nonprofits organizations in Houston, Texas assisting individuals diagnosed with Mental Illness and IDD issues in the employment arena. She remains an advocate coordinating Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church Mental Health Ecumenical Ministry providing free mental health education classes, support group meetings, and community outreach for those impacted by mental illness including the diagnosed, family members and the larger community of churches in Northeast Houston.