Poverty and the Mental Health of Youth

By: Brianna Beno

In 2016, The World Health Organization declared poverty the most significant determinant of health for both children and adults (Fitzgerald, Jakovljevic, & Miller, 2016). Poverty is a significant component in regards to both the physical and mental health of youth, considering low-income adolescents are twice as likely to display serious mental health needs compared to their middle and upper-class counterparts (Tucker, 2009). Low-income prevents access to the resources necessary to treat mental health needs such as adequate health care services. In addition to health care, poverty often restricts the availability of resources that are readily available to those in the middle and upper class.

Life in poverty exposes young people to many difficulties not experienced by those in the upper and middle class. Factors such as homelessness, food insecurity, inadequate nutrition, poor healthcare, unsafe neighborhoods, and underfunded schools contribute to daily stressors experienced exclusively by low-income communities. (Gupta, 2017.) The constant uncertainty of resources necessary for survival can create patterns of fear and worry in individuals who are struggling to stay alive.

Without access to basic needs such as food and shelter, one becomes unable to focus on much other than the primary resources necessary for survival. The allocation of energy on needs essential for survival is explored by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which states an individual must fulfill survival needs such as food, water, and safety before fulfilling requirements necessary for growth that achieve one’s potential (McLeod, 2017). Maslow's hierarchy of needs demonstrates how failure to meet basic survival needs can prevent the desire to fulfill one’s real potential and become “self-actualized.” For impoverished youth, the constant requirement of securing basic survival needs can have a significant impact on mental, emotional, and behavioral (MEB) health, as well as the ability to realize potential and excel in academically.

Though youth experiencing poverty face a number of challenges regarding mental health, research identifies social support as a determinant of mental health outcomes. By compassionately understanding and listening to these youth, we can allow them to feel their experiences are valid and their lives are valuable. This method of social support can assist children with their MEB issues, and facilitate the healing necessary to prevent impoverished youth from perpetuating poverty in their adult lives. Social support must be considered by parents, school administrative staff, and policymakers alike in order best assist these vulnerable youth. By implementing social support strategies into the lives of impoverished young people, we can empower them to rise above potential MEB ailments and achieve self-actualization.