Childhood Poverty Can Undermine Mental Health in Adulthood

Man with hands wearing fingerless glovesChildhood poverty is linked to significant psychological difficulties in adulthood, according to a 15-year study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study notes previous research has also linked childhood poverty to negative physical health outcomes, including premature death and poor health in adulthood.

Childhood Poverty and Adult Mental Health

Researchers tracked 341 children for 15 years, assessing them at ages 9, 13, 17, and 24.

The tests assessed spatial memory of adult participants. Researchers say the ability to retain information can affect a person’s linguistic skills and overall achievement. Using an unsolvable puzzle, researchers also assessed helplessness, which can undermine motivation and psychological health. Using standardized measures, researchers analyzed participants’ mental health. Blood pressure, stress hormones, and body mass index (BMI) tests approximated participants’ stress levels.

Adults who grew up in poverty did worse on each measure of cognitive and emotional health. They were more likely to give up in the face of challenges. They also experienced impeded spatial memory, increased chronic stress, and poorer overall mental health. The study’s authors say the stress of poverty and financial issues is largely to blame for any psychological issues experienced in adulthood.

Inadequate Mental Health Care Access

The study’s authors say early interventions with impoverished children are vital for preserving their long-term mental health. They also emphasize that increasing family income is likely the most efficient method for reducing childhood poverty. They advocate for creating a safety net to protect the poorest and most vulnerable children. Numerous studies have linked poverty to reduced access to mental health care services, which leaves little support for the children most vulnerable to adulthood mental health issues.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the stress of living in poverty can trigger a range of mental health conditions. People who grow up impoverished are about twice as likely to experience depression. Hunger and debt can also make it more likely for someone to experience mental health concerns. Among people in the lowest socioeconomic groups, schizophrenia is eight times more prevalent than in higher socioeconomic brackets.

Previous evidence shows poverty and mental health issues are cyclical. Growing up in poverty increases the risk of poor mental health, and mental health conditions can make it more likely for someone to become impoverished.


  1. Evans, G. W. (2016). Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(52). doi:10.1073/pnas.1604756114
  2. Mental health, poverty and development. (n.d.). World Health Organization. Retrieved from

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  • Dolly

    January 12th, 2017 at 8:38 AM

    Just because the financial resources may not always be there that doesn’t mean that the house has to lack in love.

  • Laura

    January 12th, 2017 at 9:21 PM

    Mental illness does not equate to lack of love in the home either.
    But lack of funds is a factor in lack of health care, nutrition and other factors that contribute to the mental and physical health of the whole family.

  • Nikki

    January 13th, 2017 at 10:40 AM

    This is just so sad to me. These are children who are already in so much pain and the families that they live with in all likelihood have very much that they could ever do to prevent this from happening.

    It doesn’t seem fair that we are none of us ever given all the resources that we need to fight off some things that could be so preventable other than that small upper one or two percent of the population.

    It comes to a point where I am thinking ok healthcare physical and mental healthcare should not be some kind of special thing, it should be something that we are all entitled to.

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