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Living in Poverty and Having a Mental Illness

Mental disorder or illness is a psychological or physiological pattern that occurs in an individual or a group of individuals and is in most cases associated with distress or disability that is not in line with expectations of normal development or ways of life. Another definition portrays mental sickness or disorders as psychological conditions that tamper with a person’s thought process, feeling, mood, ability to socialize and relate to others, together with the daily functioning of the affected individuals which in most times result in lowering of the ability and capacity to meet daily demands (Chakraburtty, 2009).

In some situations, mental disorder has been associated with poverty. Basically, poverty is a condition whereby people cannot access the means to satisfy their basic needs or wants. It is the condition of not having the means and ability to afford basic human needs such as clean water, nutrition, health care, clothing and shelter (Shah, 2010)

According to the World Bank (2010) ’’Poverty is hunger, lack of shelter, being sick and not being able to see a doctor; it is not having access to school and not knowing how to read; is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time; Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water, poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.’’ The identification of poor people involves the definition and determination of what the basic human needs consist of since this is what is needed for survival. Generally poverty and mental illness seem to be interconnected such that people living in poverty have a higher possibility of developing mental illness. However, some other factors (as briefly discussed below) have been identified to having an influence in mental illness.

Causes of mental illness

The exact factors causing mental sickness are not well known but extensive research has shown that most of these conditions can be linked to one or a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. (Chakraburtty, 2009)

Biological factors

These include abnormal balance of chemicals in the body which affect the nerves leading to problems in communication between the nerves and the brain. Mental illnesses may be hereditary or may result from infections especially in the cases of obsessive compulsive behavior, prenatal damage due to trauma and others like poor nutrition and exposure to harmful elements such as lead.

Psychological factors

These may include severe psychological trauma suffered as a child, which may be physical or emotional, in form of death or abuse. In addition, the disorder may be found in people who are neglected and have a poor ability to relate and socialize with others.

Environmental factors

Certain issues in the environment one is living in may have an influence on mental illness, more so on a person who has a risk of being mentally ill. These stressors may include death or divorce in a family or close friends, a disorganized family life, high levels of poverty, change in jobs or schools or any form of geographical mobility, socio-cultural expectations that are unreasonable like associating thinness with beauty leading to conditions like anorexia, and substance and drug use and abuse by either the person or his or her close associates.

Poverty and mental health

The relationship between poverty and mental health can only be explained as one explores the impacts of poverty in the general population. Mental illnesses can be said to be more widespread among the people with low or no capacity to access material means to satisfy their basic needs, and more so to those that have lived in poverty for a long period of time (Zastrow, 2009, p. 156).


Poverty is the main cause of most of the health problems in the undeveloped and developing countries mainly through hunger, diseases and malnutrition. There are also diseases that are predominantly for the poor people such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis measles, pneumonia, and diarrhea, mainly because the poor may not have enough resources to seek medical attention early enough (Zastrow, 2009, p. 156). In addition, infant and maternal mortality are far more prevalent among the poor. These diseases are caused and widely spread by the environmental and social reasons that include overcrowded habitation with inadequate sanitation, occupation exposing one to risks of contracting diseases as seen in prostitution and exposure to infectious diseases which spread quickly due to low hygiene. Malnutrition, stress, overworking, and inadequate, inaccessible, or non-existent healthcare hinder recovery from those diseases leading to high rates of mortality (Stevens, 2004). Malnutrition is linked with high rates of childhood deaths while absence of trained midwives during childbirth is the main cause of the high rates of maternal and infant deaths in the less affluent communities. The inability to resolve these conditions leads to struggle for survival through theft, prostitution, drug abuse and substance use, as well as family breakages and other anti-social behaviors in the society. These conditions in most cases lead to or trigger mental disorders or illnesses due to the helplessness and hopelessness of the people living in these situations.


There is a higher risk of academic or educational underachievement for children who are from poor families since the available resources tend to be used on the prioritized issues such as food, clothing and shelter. Children from poor areas have short attention span hence low concentration making it harder for them to understand what they are being taught. Lack of educational skills leads to unemployment or low paying, non-skilled labor, which exacerbates poverty. This leads to proliferation of slums and orphanages which to some extent are ideal places for psychological interruptions especially when not well managed. Jobless people are more likely to experience stress moments as they ponder their next step of action. Due to joblessness, people migrate to other areas in search of opportunities to better themselves hence disrupting the family and impacting the all parties concerned psychologically.

Mental illness on the other hand hinders acquisition of knowledge in that in many cases it is impossible for people with mental problems to source for knowledge. This limits their ability to look for ways of improving their livelihood leading to a cyclic poverty where poverty causes mental illness and in turn mental illness leads to perpetuation of poverty (Moore, 2002, p. 437).


The level of socio-economic status plays a major role in dictating the hosing and settlement patterns in an area. The poor tend to concentrate where houses are cheap leading to the formation of low cost housing projects and slums. Those who are not lucky enough to find accommodation due to overpopulation and scarce resources become homeless giving rise to street children. For those who live in slums, they have to deal with congestion and poor sanitation hence a health hazard. These conditions lead to rise in vices like prostitution, drug abuse and substance use, theft, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence among others which in a way contribute to the rise in the cases of mental illness (Tibaijuka, 2006).


Mental illness is socially stigmatized hence a widespread reluctance to employ mentally disabled persons. They find it hard to hold a job due to treatment patterns which change with the changes in the mental problems, lack of qualifications and even lack of support from fellow employees or the employer whereby they may be segregated or picked on in the work place. The capacity to perform in a work environment reduces with the increase in the health problem; thus leading to increase in the levels of poverty among the mentally ill people, a situation that in turn worsens their condition. This may lead to them running into steep debts which may or may not have been the cause of their condition in the first place


Although poverty plays a major role in mental health, it is not the only factor that causes mental health. It is a combination of factors that eventually result to mental illness, which include biological, psychological, physiological cultural or environmental factors; and since most of these factors are affected by the changes in economic situation of an individual or community, the financial situation influences how they these factors affect the mental health of an individual. Moreover, since these factors are universal, mental disorders run through all populations from different cultural backgrounds. Due to the stigma associated with mental disorder, people tend to refrain from taking medical help especially due to lack of trust towards mental health services providers, as well as stereotypes and bias towards the mentally disturbed patients. The health services dealing with disabled persons should be sensitive to their needs and not use the preconceived notions when dealing with them.


Chakraburtty, A. (2009). Causes of Mental Illness: Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center. Web.

Moore, S. (2002). Social welfare alive! Edition 3. NY, Nelson Thornes.

Stevens, P. (2004). Diseases of poverty and the 10/90 Gap. London: Hanway Print Centre.

Shah, A. (2010). Causes of Poverty. Web.

Tibaijuka, A. (2006). Report reveals global slum crisis. Web.

World Bank. (2010). Overview: understanding, Measuring and overcoming poverty. Web.

Zastrow, C. (2009). Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare: Empowering People NY, Cengage Learning.

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