Poverty and Mental Health: The Relationships Analysis


Gaining high social status and achieving prosperity through financial well-being are the prospects for which most people aspire. Today, an opportunity to maintain a healthy family overlaps with income levels, and the lack of livelihood is often associated with poor health outcomes. Moreover, in addition to physical condition, mental health is also considered a factor that correlates with financial well-being. This work aims to identify the relationship between poverty and mental health, determine specific theoretical underpinnings of this connection, and present potentially effective solutions to address the problem. Relevant data will be applied, and findings from credible studies will be applied to justify the significance of the issue. The intersectionality theory, the transactional stress theory, and the conservation of resources theory are concepts that prove the connection between poverty and mental health and confirm the link between severe disorders and low income.

The Relevance of the Issue

The development of mental disorders due to poverty is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed in several areas, including the medical sector and the social field. While studying the problems on this topic, some researchers pay particular attention to mental disorders in children and adolescents (Wadsworth et al., 2018; Wahlbeck et al., 2017; Wickham et al., 2017). As one of the main drivers of the issue, low social status is considered and, in particular, an insufficient educational level due to the inability to pay for the services of educational institutions. In their study, Wahlbeck et al. (2017) note that, based on data from 21 European countries, 26% of children and adolescents who leave school before 15 have a confirmed mental disorder (p. 506). These statistics confirm that the discontinuation of education due to poverty correlates with mental health and affects children’s psyche.

Along with childhood mental disorders, mental health problems in parents are also correlated with low social status. Wickham et al. (2017) analyze data from the UK and assess the degree of maternal depression that develops due to the inability to provide children with appropriate educational opportunities and other social benefits. According to the researchers, “poor child mental health is associated with absence from school, poor educational attainment, impaired cognitive development, social isolation, low self-esteem,” and some other problems (Wickham et al., 2017, p. e141). Based on these factors, one can observe that most of the causes of mental disorders in children are social in nature and develop due to the difficulties with the financial well-being of their families. Therefore, the problem of poverty is a direct driver of the development of severe disorders, which can worsen as children grow older.

Since poverty affects not only financial well-being but also other aspects of life, the development of mental disorders is accelerated by accompanying drivers. Wadsworth et al. (2018) analyze various stressors that adults and children face in low living conditions and mention family conflicts, domestic violence, poor nutrition, and some other negative implications. The authors also propose “the term poverty-related stress” as a definition that has evolved due to numerous studies on the topic and the confirmed correlations between poverty and mental disorders (Wadsworth et al., 2018, p. 1024). Regular anxiety in the face of the lack of livelihood causes fear and nervousness, thereby stimulating the development of mental health problems. As a result, both children and adults are exposed to the threat of the negative impact of poverty as one of the factors in the development of severe disorders.

The problem in question is complicated by the failure to address poverty globally to improve people’s mental health outcomes. According to Sylvestre et al. (2018), modern assistance programs are focused on individual-level work, which, in turn, does not allow solving the existing issue, at least at the community level. Programs and interventions promoted by sociologists and healthcare professionals focus on families’ personal problems and address the underlying causes of the current challenges. Such measures do not allow maintaining sustainable work on the creation of effective projects to eliminate the incentives of poverty at the general level. There is no solid background for the implementation of effective economic and social initiatives. Thus, in the context of insufficiently productive work at the global level and the absence of efficient measures to address poverty, the correlation between low social status and mental health problems persists.

Theoretical Perspectives of the Correlation Between Poverty and Mental Health

The existing theoretical findings support the relationship between poverty and mental health. For instance, Wadsworth et al. (2018) offer to use the intersectionality concept as a model to substantiate the negative impact of social challenges, in particular, low income, on mental disorders. According to the authors, marginalization as a phenomenon affects the psychological state of people and influences the child’s psyche most strongly due to their immature behavioral patterns and impaired world perception (Wadsworth et al., 2018). Social adaptation in conditions of poverty is difficult because parents cannot give their children an opportunity to develop comprehensively and acquire valuable communication skills due to the lack of resources. This, in turn, slows down the cognitive development of children and prevents the formation of natural attainments. The intersectionality theory involves assessing the related aspects affecting the issue, for instance, family conflicts, which are also frequent manifestations of poverty. As a result, this concept confirms a negative correlation between low social status and mental health.

Since poverty is often accompanied by stress and persistent anxiety, applying a relevant concept can help explain the interactions presented adequately. As Hall et al. (2019) argue, the transactional stress theory may be used as a model to explain the corresponding negative implications of low social status on mental health. The researchers state that this concept allows determining the basic stimuli and drivers that cause stressful conditions and other negative disorders that affect the psyche (Hall et al., 2019). The aforementioned interaction between poverty and stress is a significant factor in explaining the nature of individual disorders and their impact. Hall et al. (2019) focus their research on low- and middle-income countries and note that in these states, the indicators of citizens’ mental health are lower than those of the citizens of countries with developed economies. Thus, the transactional stress theory is also a suitable concept to validate the connection between poverty and mental disorders.

Another concept that can explain the proposed correlation is the conservation of resources theory. According to Hall et al. (2019), “the ability to overcome stressors is predicated on the availability of needed resources that can be mobilised to overcome adverse events” (p. e027047). In other words, if a person has enough resources and opportunities to deal with the negative consequences of social or other difficulties, the processes of normal development and adaptation may be established successfully. Nevertheless, when applying this concept to the phenomenon of poverty, one can notice that the nature of low income does not allow utilizing the necessary benefits and valuable resources to overcome the difficulties that have arisen. Failure to obtain essential psychological help, problems with the acquisition of potentially effective medications, and other difficulties may be examples of such a problem. A person can rely only on one’s strength, but in conditions of the lack of livelihood, stressful conditions become more frequent and severe. Therefore, a vicious circle is formed, which prevents the normal way out of the crisis and worsens well-being and by entailing the development of mental health problems and causing disorders.

Finally, the social stratification theory is a model that is also relevant in the context of discussing the negative impact of poverty on mental health. Wadsworth et al. (2018) analyze the aspects of inequality and class division as factors that entail the impaired principles of interaction in society. The researchers remark that “individual-level differences must be understood in light of broader systems-level factors, such as structural inequality” (Wadsworth et al., 2018, p. 1024). The existing aspects of inequality are perceived naturally, despite the attempts of the responsible authorities and governments to address these gaps. A person living below the poverty line gets used to this lifestyle and shapes individual attitudes and behavioral patterns that may run counter to the normal lifestyle. However, this perspective may be the only possible way to preserve livelihood opportunities in the face of a severe lack of resources. Thus, contemporary social challenges are a significant factor proving the relationship between poverty and the development of mental disorders.

Measures to Overcome the Existing Gaps

To address the existing gaps and minimize the increase in the number of mental health problems in people below the poverty line, specific measures need to be taken at community levels. Pryor et al. (2019) draw attention to the importance of expanding the access of the vulnerable population to healthcare services, in particular, consultations with qualified psychologists. In addition, the authors also note that both local and federal authorities should have a vested interest in minimizing the growth of low-income families (Pryor et al., 2019). For this purpose, reducing unemployment, ensuring socioeconomic equality, and other prerequisites for a legal society are to be promoted. These measures can help reduce the rise in mental health problems by eliminating negative incentives. Moreover, these interventions are important in the overall context of developing and maintaining a financially sustainable and healthy society.

In addition to formal interventions, social initiatives also need to be promoted to address the issue presented and minimize the negative impact of poverty on people’s mental health. According to Sylvestre et al. (2018), poverty is often accompanied by stigmatization and entails the loss of citizens’ social rights. In other words, a person cannot count on equal treatment due to the prevailing stereotypes that only average and high incomes are allowed. The fight against such prejudices can be started at the individual level, but in the future, relevant social programs should to be promoted more widely. Moreover, not only adults but also children may be involved in conversations and discussions of this problem so that people do not cultivate impaired values ​​and erroneous views from an early age. Therefore, addressing the problem through such interventions is an urgent activity to realize.

Finally, although individual work is potentially less effective in fighting poverty and its negative mental health impacts than community work, some personal programs can be valuable. As Roelen and Taylor (2020) argue, one of the possible areas of work is to enhance the self-esteem of people with low social status through targeted work to formulate clear development objectives. In conditions of constant social pressure and limited access to healthcare services, such people can withdraw into themselves, which, in turn, is fraught with the development of mental disorders. Individual sessions aimed to increase the self-esteem of patients can help the target audience accept their current status and build schemes and plans for improving their financial situation. All the presented measures can be valuable solutions to address the existing connection between poverty and people’s mental health and carry out relevant work at different levels to attract as many stakeholders as possible.


The connection between poverty and mental health is a proven issue that needs to be addressed at both the social and healthcare levels. Individual concepts, such as the intersectionality theory, the transactional stress theory, and the conservation of resources theory, are models that explain and validate the presented relationship. The study shows that children are more susceptible to the effects of low social status and the lack of livelihood than adults. To address this issue, interventions at different levels are relevant, including both community and individual programs. Involving officials, social employees, and healthcare professionals is imperative to help the vulnerable population remove the existing stigmas, accept their problem, and find ways to address it.


Hall, B. J., Garabiles, M. R., de Hoop, J., Pereira, A., Prencipe, L., & Palermo, T. M. (2019). Perspectives of adolescent and young adults on poverty-related stressors: A qualitative study in Ghana, Malawi and Tanzania. BMJ Open, 9(10), e027047.

Pryor, L., Strandberg-Larsen, K., Andersen, A. M. N., Rod, N. H., & Melchior, M. (2019). Trajectories of family poverty and children’s mental health: Results from the Danish National Birth Cohort. Social Science & Medicine, 220, 371-378.

Roelen, K., & Taylor, E. (2020). Assessing mental health in a context of extreme poverty: Validation of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale in rural Haiti. Plos One, 15(12), e0243457. Web.

Sylvestre, J., Notten, G., Kerman, N., Polillo, A., & Czechowki, K. (2018). Poverty and serious mental illness: Toward action on a seemingly intractable problem. American Journal of Community Psychology, 61(1-2), 153-165.

Wadsworth, M. E., Ahlkvist, J. A., McDonald, A., & Tilghman-Osborne, E. M. (2018). Future directions in research and intervention with youths in poverty. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 47(6), 1023-1038.

Wahlbeck, K., Cresswell-Smith, J., Haaramo, P., & Parkkonen, J. (2017). Interventions to mitigate the effects of poverty and inequality on mental health. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52(5), 505-514.

Wickham, S., Whitehead, M., Taylor-Robinson, D., & Barr, B. (2017). The effect of a transition into poverty on child and maternal mental health: A longitudinal analysis of the UK Millennium Cohort Study. The Lancet Public Health, 2(3), e141-e148.

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