Which Comes First: Poor Mental Health, or Poverty?

Statistics show that people with serious mental health issues are more likely to be unemployed, homeless, unmarried and poorer than the average population. But do these factors increase one’s likelihood of developing mental illness, or does mental illness increase one’s likelihood of decreased socioeconomic status? Researchers in Norway looked specifically at people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a population with a unique statistic: people diagnosed with this condition have, on the whole, more education than the average citizen. Because higher education levels are generally a privilege of middle and upper socioeconomic levels, this suggests that, at least in the case of bipolar, it’s the mental health issue that causes the drop in income and social support.

Whether a person becomes socioeconomically disadvantaged because of their mental illness, or whether they are born into a disadvantaged status and then face psychological problems on top of that, the outcome is often the same: the poor often have less access to therapy, counseling, and other treatment, whether for lack of resources, awareness, or both. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has been pushing for increased awareness of how federal and state budget cuts are further widening this gap, especially as continued unemployment and job losses put even more people at risk for finance-related psychological stress. In addition, those people who may have already been in therapy or counseling may have to stop going when they lose their employer-sponsored insurance.

In addition to access, social stigma still plays a role as a barrier to prevention and treatment of mental health issues large and small. Recent studies have shown that despite increased awareness of the facts about mental illness, depression, addiction and other issues, stigma against individuals who struggle with these issues has been virtually unchanged over the past decade. Increasing the well-being of those who deal with mental health issues requires a multi-faceted approach. Ensuring access to and funding for therapy is essential, but so is eliminating the stigma that keeps people from taking advantages of the services and professionals that are there to help them.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • george abraham

    September 28th, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    its like the chicken-egg problem.but no matter what causes the other,whether it is poor mental health or bad economic condition,this unending loop has to be broken and only government programs can make that happen.

  • Hannah

    September 28th, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    The reality of the situation is that it really should not matter which comes first, just that this is a population which needs any kind of help and support that is available for them to take advantage of. The cycle of mental health and poverty are issues that could easily be resolved with the right community wide support as well as that of the health care community. If we all get involved there can be a huge resolution that can be made without having to continue to sacrifice the quality of life that these people are experiencing.

  • eliza

    September 28th, 2010 at 7:08 PM

    I do not know what comes first but what I do know, like many others, is that health, whether physical or mental, is far more important to any person than his economic status. Health surely IS wealth!

    You could have a lot of money but all that is not going to help if you do not have the health to actually enjoy it!

  • wInE_iN_bOtTlE

    September 29th, 2010 at 6:54 AM

    Although it can work both ways-poverty resulting in poor mental health and poor mental health resulting in poverty-it is most often seen that the two co-exist. Hence it is our duty as a community to make health services available to such people because they usually do not have the resources to seek health services.

  • sally

    September 30th, 2010 at 3:33 AM

    I think poverty leads to poor mental health more often than poor mental health leading to poverty.This is because I have seen myself that there are a lot of bright people out there who can really do wonders but are not able to proceed due to their financial constraints.This inability to move on and achieve something can really trigger problems in their mental health.

  • WillK

    September 30th, 2010 at 4:45 AM

    It is sad to see the combination of these two factors. No matter what comes first there are people losing out on precious life as a result.

  • Joe

    September 30th, 2010 at 5:18 AM

    sad thing is that those who are more susceptible to mental health problems are the ones who cannot afford the treatment…so rather than focusing on what causes what,we need to try and provide affordable mental health facilities for such people by way of community support and subsidized services through regulations and acts.

  • ES

    September 30th, 2010 at 1:16 PM

    @wInE_iN_bOtTlE:I agree with you.But the sad thing is that not much is being done in this direction.In fact we are heading backwards,what with all the budgetary cuts and other fund-reduction going on.

  • Thenry

    January 3rd, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    As a person with bipolar disorder, I write from experience.

    My diagnosis lead to my poverty. As an undiagnosed young adult with bipolar disorder. I entered college, achieved a degree, and worked as an upper middle class professional. At all times I was also dealing with ‘extremes of mood’ primarily deep depression, Yet I was able to hold a job, raise a family, and participate in the good life albeit with out the sense of self worth and joy associated with achievement.

    I was diagnosed at 45, lost my job at 46 and have spent most of the subsequent years in poverty. I briefly returned to my profession after a 12 year absence. After a few years of high stress and poor choices (self medication),I again crashed. Treatment (Seroquel and behavioral) ensued followed by an extreme (for me) manic episode followed by another job loss and a return to underemployment, poverty, and social withdrawal.

    I continue to climb out of the well (an allusion to “Joseph and the coat of many colors”). Stigma came first followed quickly by poverty.

  • Helen

    March 27th, 2013 at 4:54 PM

    I’m also a bipolar sufferer

    With me stigma also came first followed by poverty – I say ‘poverty’ loosely here as the fact that I even have internet access proves that I’m in a far better position than the majority of my country – I’m South African.

  • Bibiana

    April 28th, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    I feel that it is like the question of what came first: the chicken or the egg? I do know that in my own case my mental illness caused me to lose many jobs and opportunities. It also made relationships difficult. I feel.that the illness causes the financial problems, but then the stress that comes with financial difficulty exacerbates the illness. People with bipolar badly need the care and support necessary for them to function in society.

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