Poverty Is Bad For Mental Health – No, Really, It Is!

Spoiler Alert: Readers of this article will learn that research proves it is difficult to recover from behavioral health disorders if you have no money!

Having started my career being a front-line peer substance abuse and mental health worker, one of the first things I noticed was that both treatment fields were centered on goals that did not consider the major elephant in the room — almost all of the people we were serving were living in poverty!

We had meetings where we would discuss treatment goals and everything seemed to be focused on illness and helping people manage or limit symptoms. When I spoke with the people who we were serving, they discussed goals like finding the dollar they needed to take the bus to treatment, figuring out how to shop for food so that they had some left at the end of the month when they were out of food stamps, or getting enough change to do a load of laundry.

I remember the disconnect when I asked people what their goals were and expected or wanted to hear things like going to college, but instead heard things that were much more basic. A growing body of brain research is beginning to tell us why.

A recent study published in Science Magazine found that the steady flow of pressures and anxiety associated with wondering how you are going to feed yourself, living with unstable housing conditions, and having to deal with the maze created by public behavioral health and benefits systems actually limits mental functioning. Add the stress resulting from witnessing and experiencing trauma and violence and you do not have a recipe for recovery!

Besides proving something most front line workers already know, the findings stand in the face of the idea that people in poverty are responsible for their own poverty and they should be able to change their life situations on their own – living in poverty makes it more difficult to complete basic living activities.

As we look to prevent and treat behavioral health disorders, we need to keep these findings in mind. In order to support recovery we need to ensure that people are able to access income that will enable them to access treatment supports and the most basic yet most important support, housing.

An important recovery support that is proven to work is the SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) process.  SOAR seeks to end homelessness for individuals with behavioral health disorders through increased access to SSI/SSDI disability benefits, directly addressing the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) position that in order “to recover, people need a safe stable place to live.” This is essential, and for many persons in recovery, accessing benefits is a first step.  SOAR also encourages employment as a means to increase individual income and promote recovery in line with the SAMHSA assertion that, “to recover, people need meaningful work and the ability to enhance their skills through education.”

I was recently speaking with an amazing individual who has spent years struggling with incarceration, mental illness, and homelessness. He had just been approved for SSI through the SOAR process and was now going to be able to move to stable housing. I asked him what he was going to do now that he was going to have a place to live, a “home base.” He replied, “It has been a long road, I have been stressed out and homeless for 10 years…I think I am going to get a job.”

This post was originally published on 06/11/2014 to the SAMHSA SOAR TA Center’s SOAR Voices blog. Read more blogs like these at their website.

Behavioral health, Recovery supports, SOAR    

The views expressed by the blog post author are their own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Policy Research Associates, Inc.

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