Relieving Poverty for Mental Health

Greater income seen as a partial success in improving mental health.

By PT Staff, published on October 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Getting children out of poverty can improve their mental health, but it doesn't fix everything. Behavioral problems—such as conduct disorder—seem to decline with increased income, yet moving above the poverty line did not help children with disorders like anxiety and depression.

Jane Costello, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Duke University, examined the mental health of 1,420 children selected from rural areas of western North Carolina over an eight-year period.

Four years into the study, a casino built by Cherokee Indians led many tribal families in the area out of poverty. Tribal members were more likely than others in the area to be impoverished. The tribal government distributed profits to every Cherokee over 18—around $6,000 per person by the end of the study.

After four years, the once-impoverished children behaved as well as children who had never been poor. However, depression and anxiety levels did not drop significantly. Also, the children who were never poor remained less depressed and anxious throughout the study.

Relieving poverty helped to improve parental supervision, according to interviews done with parents. Costello suggests that most of a child's improvement with behavior disorders can be attributed to better parenting. Emotional disorders, however, are not as easily resolved.