Last Updated on December 10, 2019 by Valarie Ward
The poorest citizens in our country, often living in impoverished communities, are plagued by mental illnesses including substance abuse. We often see this as a problem that begins with an addiction that ruins a person’s finances and leads to poor mental health.
However, living in an impoverished area can expose a person to constantly stressful situations that can lead to the onset of PTSD and an increased risk of substance abuse. Those living in poverty can sometimes feel trapped in this cycle of financial disarray, addiction, and mental illness.
According to Poverty USA, in 2016, 40.6 million US citizens lived below the federal government’s official poverty line – representing 12.7% of the population.
Women are disproportionately affected; poverty affects 16.3% of women, and 26.6% of single-parent families without a husband present.
It is also hurting 21.2% of American children – about one in every five children.
And ethnic minorities are also disproportionately living in poverty. While white and Asian families have a roughly 12% rate of poverty, Hispanic families are nearly twice that at 23.4%. African American families experience poverty at 26.2%, and Native Americans report the highest rates of poverty at 27.6%.
These figures do not include those that are near poverty, nor those living in deep poverty (an income at 50% or less of the national poverty line).
Poverty and PTSD
To understand the link between poverty and PTSD, we must consider the socioeconomic circumstances that co-occur with poverty.
As reported by the American Psychological Association’s Trauma Division, citizens with a low socioeconomic status (SES) often live in areas prone to natural disasters; the onset of global warming will only make this problem worse. In addition, low SES citizens often have less access to insurance, adequate medical care, proper education, and transportation – disadvantages that effectively trap them in a system of poverty.
The APA also lists some common traumas experienced by those living in poverty – “from residential fires and motor vehicle accidents to natural disasters and firearm-related injury and death.”
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network agrees that these traumas are common and frequent. In their report, “Understanding the Impact of Trauma and Urban Poverty on Family Systems”, they say, “Families living in urban poverty often encounter multiple traumas over many years. Further, they are less likely than families living in more affluent communities to have access to the resources that may facilitate the successful negotiation of their traumatic experiences.”
These problems are also intergenerational; that is, the effects of trauma on a parent can be passed onto their children, creating a cycle of dysfunction.
And as reported by an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, this socioeconomic environment directly correlates to PTSD: “both income and education were inversely related to PTSD symptoms, with those earning <$25,000 per years being four times more likely to have probable PTSD than those earning $100,000+ per year.”
A Cycle of Defeat
Did you know that our nation’s opioid crisis is hitting our nation’s poor at much higher rates?
As we covered in this article on Capitalism and Mental Illness, deprivation of our most basic needs can worsen our mental health. These basic needs – like clean water, clean air, food, and adequate housing – are of much lower quality in the nation’s poorest areas.
Plus, there is an inextricable link between poor mental health and addiction, as we discussed in our article on veterans’ PTSD and addiction.
In other words, poverty can directly lead to PTSD and/or addiction, PTSD comes with a far greater risk of addiction, and addiction and PTSD can both impact our financial status (due to missed work). These three factors all feed into one another to create a system that is very difficult to break free from – a cycle of defeat.
What can be done?
While these statistics are bleak, they are not a death sentence.
Improving the conditions in our nation’s poorest communities will take great effort and time. It should involve investment in infrastructure and clean energy to ensure that our citizens’ basic needs are being met. Enhanced social services to address economic inequality, proper wages, and racial bias may also help break this cycle.
In addition, the APA’s trauma center gives several suggestions for improving trauma care in economically disadvantaged patients. Among these, they suggest an increased awareness of the traumas of those living in poverty; screening for trauma in routine physical or gynecological evaluations; and bringing trauma care to non-conventional locations, such as schools, community centers, and religious communities.
Removing the weight of poverty and mental illness may help relieve some of the factors that lead to addiction, as will programs that provide student loan relief to healthcare providers working on substance abuse.
If you are struggling with addiction or PTSD, know that help is available to you. With the proper therapy (whether inpatient or outpatient) and support, you can break out of this cycle of defeat.
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