Dominic Fairfax Forum
Dominic Fairfax Forum

Does Poverty Cause Depression?

Yes it does. To you and I the reasons why poverty is likely to precipitate depression may be fairly obvious but surprisingly, there is a considerable amount of socio-psychological debate regarding the causes of depressive states among the poor and disadvantaged in Western societies. Many psychologists believe that biases in thinking play a central role. They explain that such biases include a negative view of the self, of the world, and of the future. In other words, they believe that depressed people are pessimistic and their chosen coping mechanisms may be maladaptive which inevitably exacerbate their low moods. They claim that depressed people may engender hostility and guilt to their listeners and therefore, they are at risk of being rejected. In turn, depressives are unconsciously drawn to others with depressive traits which reinforce their negative moods. If dysfunctional attitudes have developed during early life there may be "deficits in social functioning."


It cannot be denied that there are many factors contributing to depression, including clinical ones such as brain chemicals, physical illness, mood disorders such as bipolar variations and hormonal fluctuations. Where these are present, poverty will worsen the effects. There is evidence to support the stance that clinically afflicted parents pass their despondency on to their children but it is undoubtedly the case that poverty will exacerbate the melancholy. The Western relatively poor are plagued with debt and worry. Their poverty is robbing them of their potential and inner peace. Moreover, negative modes of thinking are often due to unresolved, negative, childhood experiences. Negative thinking always has source and a cause. People do not generally wake up one morning and decide to think negatively any more than the afflicted can turn on a switch and decide to think positively, especially if they are also encumbered by Western-style poverty.


Society seriously underestimates the role that early nurture and physiological factors play in the development of an infant. Adequate stimulation, love, tenderness, nourishment and care at this most crucial and rapid phase of brain development are essential because they affect cognitive, social and emotional growth. We are all familiar with programmes about animal cruelty; of how ill-treatment, lack of  nourishment, lack of love and all forms of neglect affect the developing puppy, rendering it aggressive or timid depending on its early life. Obviously the same is true of children. The child's early years affect his or her behaviour, perception, emotions and degree of self-confidence, the latter of which, often determines whether or not he or she will be able to escape the trappings of poverty in later life.  Almost every week we hear of children and adolescents living in poverty in the UK. They go to school hungry. They live in environmentally deprived areas in poor quality dwellings or in ghastly council tower blocks where politicians, the affluent and the comfortable would not like to venture, let alone live. Humans have made a money-world as its very foundation. Wealthy power elites and governments have made economic growth their main preoccupation, not the well-being of the people.  Poverty is not just about money but generally, lack of money is the underlying cause of educational and environmental deprivation and the intergenerational transmission of lack of opportunities. Poverty, childhood traumas, abuse, absence of love and neglect invariably precipitate insecurity, profound lack of self-confidence and a negative view of the self in both childhood and adulthood if such problems are not counter-balanced. Neglected and abused children have usually received poor or little guidance. On reaching adulthood, many will seek to find the love and care they did not receive as children. Since their plight is often desperate and judgement poor, girls in particular, may end up making disastrous choices of partners.Their self-confidence is so low that they think they do not deserve any better. They may become depressed and oppressed by their family situation which is much worse if coupled with poverty because there is no means of extricating themselves from it.


If the afflicted child manages to retain an equilibrium in adulthood then he or she must, at some time, have interacted with people, ideas and circumstances which steered him or her in a more positive direction. On the other hand, if individuals continuously enter into situations that are detrimental to their well-being, including the trappings of poverty, there must be something in their past which is either consciously, or unconsciously, causing them to lack self-confidence. There is not a great deal of ambiguity in understanding that in a community where everyone is poor, the effects of poverty may not induce such a poor concept of self among individuals in that community. But when a poor community is surrounded by an affluent one; where the general living standards of that country are expected to be greater, the definition of poverty will be different. In addition, poverty in isolation will precipitate even worse depression. Increasing numbers of people are drowning in debt due to insufficient wages in relation to their basic financial outgoings.  When they hear about the colossal salaries and bonuses awarded to bankers, their fiddling of figures, their selling of mortgages to gain commission to people who cannot afford mortgages, the bailing out with tax-payer's money and the fraud and expenses scandals among elected politicians it makes them even more depressed and incredibly angry. Low-income people usually reside in areas with high crime rates. Unhappiness and deprivation cause crime and addictions in some individuals. Such areas will contain high concentrations of drug users, burglars and knife attackers which are hardly conducive to the security and emotional well-being of the others. In the West, it is often the case that a low-income family resides in the same street as more affluent families. The poor then have a visible point of reference which will inevitably affect their self-esteem. The psychologist, Paul Albee, does not mince his words. He puts the reasons for depression in a nutshell:



Many emotional disorders result from the stresses associated with poverty; from physical and sexual abuse of children; from child neglect, social isolation and exploitation; from the low self-esteem associated with non-voluntary unemployment; from low social status, being female in a patriarchal society; being African in societies dominated and controlled by Caucasians, or being gay in a homophobic world. The key concept is that the stress engendered by these experiences leads to behaviour that is socially labelled as ‘mental illness.’

As aforementioned, it is common sense that the prerequisites for human well-being are love and care, quality food, a pleasant environment, company, warmth, decent shelter, education, stimulation and decent wages to enable them to be a participant in the society of which they, and their children, are supposed to be a part. Poverty means marginalisation. Poverty means that countless children suffer. In some of the poorest areas of the UK, between 40 to 50% of children reside in poverty with large concentrations in the London area. The most striking thing is that many people are incredibly mean-spirited regarding the poor, even towards children. It is noticeable that there is a large following of economic eugenics running through society. The fact of the matter is that extreme Western poverty causes 'underclasses' to develop, especially in areas where redundant industries used to thrive. Insufficient exogamy in sprawling socio-economically deprived areas means people reproduce more of the same often inadvertently lowering the overall IQ. The stress of poverty in its many guises renders some individuals unable to care for their children in a positive way. Relationships between family members are often tense and abusive. Abandoned, dependent women with young children, fearful of poverty and loneliness, will often seek out new partners, sometimes several times, leaving children bewildered and lost and as aforementioned, the pattern becomes intergenerationally perpetuated. In low-income areas there are always plenty of health centres because there will inevitably be numerous people developing high blood pressure, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, diabetes and of course, depression and anxiety. 


The philosopher, Ivan Illich, states: … ‘of course such situations cause physical and emotional illness.' Poverty makes people apathetic, frustrated, anxious and angry. Poverty causes many people to live their entire lives in anxiety states due to perpetual concerns about their security. Many general anxiety states are not "disorders". They are natural responses to the prospect of not having enough money to choose where one lives decently and securely in addition to precipitating severe lack of self-confidence, especially where people have also suffered unresolved traumas and deprivation throughout childhood because everything will be compounded. The basis of all of these problems is lack of self-confidence.

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society [ Jiddu Krishnamurti ]


It is not that low-income and socially deprived people imagine they are insecure - they are insecure. Many people suffer from co-morbidities due to their various forms of deprivation. Emotional illness has always been the Cinderella of the National Health Service. There are as many emotional problems as physical ones. Physical health centres and practices abound in deprived areas but we do not see health centres and practices dealing specifically with psychological states on every street corner; if there were, they would be inundated. The body is always given precedence over the mind because it is easier to diagnose but minds are of fundamental importance because they are the essence of who we are. Social problems are the most common cause of non-clinical depression and cannot possibly be treated via the biomedical model. Neither should the pharmaceutical industries be making millions out of people's misery but they most certainly do. Generally, our society is hardly conducive to emotional well-being. We are all insecure due to the nature of society but we are not anywhere near as insecure as the individual whose entire childhood was traumatic and is now, or was always, living in a ghetto, in poverty, without any future prospects. Women's depression is often a result of their gender role in patriarchal societies.


Depression and poverty is rife among female lone parents especially if their own parents are deceased and they are without a supportive family network. Much of women's financial security derives from their spouse's income. Her own wage is usually much lower. It basically serves to top up the wage of her spouse. In the majority of cases, it is only if the partnership breaks down that a woman realises that she cannot possibly manage on her own earnings. Many girls, especially from poor areas, are still not being taught to secure a proper career before committing to marriage/cohabitation and children. If the relationship fails and her ex-partner cannot earn enough to support her, she and her children will inevitably reside in poverty, often entirely dependent on welfare benefits. Separation and divorce can cause appalling financial problems for women with children. As the childbearing sex they are extremely vulnerable to poverty, especially those at the lower end of the stratified system. Thousands of women suffer profound depression in such situations. Many work in menial, monotonous, dull jobs, with contract hours topped up by credits but they remain relatively poor. Some women report that feminist counsellors are rare but lone mothers who have encountered them felt a surge of relief and a new understanding of the plight of women's greater susceptibility to poverty and the reasons for their inability to escape from it. Many women with children are trapped in abusive, controlling relationships. Without sufficient capital of their own, they cannot escape their situation to form a new life. As aforementioned, her resulting relative poverty and depression will be much worse if her own parents are deceased, she is without siblings, she is without qualifications and her childhood was traumatic. 


Men from socially deprived areas also suffer terribly. A young man, residing in a socio-economically deprived area and suffering from severe depression, stated that he went through the usual channels of state approved counselling services but subsequently felt no better. He said he was given 'scores'. He conveyed that he ''scored a certain number of points on this and another number of points on that'' so it was concluded that he was not depressed. He was 'discharged from care'. "Was it true that that you were no longer depressed?" he was asked. "No" he replied. "I was profoundly depressed." That is not surprising since he'd had a dreadfully deprived childhood, totally devoid of love and guidance throughout his life. He was lost and lonely. People cannot be 'scored'. Scores cannot mean anything. People have pasts, feelings, extenuating circumstances, unresolved emotional traumas. He 'lived' in a ghetto in a slumlord's rent-a-room. His parents were deceased. He was very poor by Western standards. What he needed was understanding, time, love, friends, to talk at length and to have enough money to extricate himself from his current situation. The young man said that people are sometimes given 'how depressed are you forms' by their GP. "The questions are short and closed-ended." They often ask if the afflicted individual has morbid thoughts. "They do, but dare not admit it in case they get carted off to the funny farm.'' GPs seldom derive from poor, troubled and disadvantaged backgrounds and cannot therefore, truly relate to those who do. The young man added that some health professionals only care about making money and disparagingly asserted that some of them are "so far up their own arses it isn't true."


People with severe issues from childhood are often angry, especially if coupled with ongoing poverty and ghetto life. They find it exceedingly difficult to wait in queues or linger for any kind of appointment system that is running late. Their impatience is a result of being permanently agitated and stressed. If children have been beaten, abused, bereaved, neglected, belittled, poverty-stricken, powerless, pushed around from pillar to post or witnessed the abuse of a parent they can hardly be expected to be the same as everybody else on reaching adulthood. There can be no uniform way of being in stratified societies. Anger is often a cloak for anxiety. It is either directed outwards or it is directed towards the self in the form of feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing. That is why some victims self-harm. The physical pain is an attempt to relieve the emotional pain as well as an attack on the self. Poverty in itself is bad enough but poverty coupled with these problems is far worse. "With regard to Western-style poverty, there would have to be something wrong with you if you were not depressed." If Western-style deprivation did not exist, neither would the need for the astronomical amount of social, medical and psychiatric intervention. The poverty industry thrives on it. Illich further states:


These ills of society are responsible for a great deal of the illnesses experienced by its members. In claiming to diagnose these illnesses via the biochemical model, doctors can do more harm than good…..such treatment is but a device to convince those who are disempowered and sick and tired of society that it is they who are ill, maladapted and in need of repair. By claiming exclusive rights to the diagnosis of illness, doctors obscure its real source.

How will this girl fare in life? How would you or I feel? What choices will she make?



Correlatively, J. Kincaid argues that:

...a proportion of social workers still attribute poverty to "a defective personality, an inability to relate to others, and an impaired capacity to make realistic judgements of self and others." The social workers, who hold a lot of power in the nanny state, relay this psychobabble to other government bodies 'for information'. Not only is it nonsense but it places the blame for poverty and the negative emotional ramifications of it squarely on the shoulders of the poor. By claiming expert knowledge to diagnose individual 'deficiences',welfare professionals, whatever their good intentions, help to retain ruling class power and perceptions by reinforcing the myth that poverty and  the resulting ignorance and depression is due to personal inadequacy rather than the nature of society.'

 Bringing Children Out of the Darkness and Into the Light


Many individuals are not equipped to navigate their own ships in society. Many have had little guidance in education, future planning, social etiquette or cultured mannerisms. Without guidance, understanding or love neither can they gain self-mastery of the emotions especially if they suffer successive traumas. Poverty renders the individual limited in the ability to gain insight, to make informed choices in his or her life which inevitably leads to further anxiety and depression. People need to have had a loving childhood and sufficient guidance. It is ludicrous to point to the depressed and poverty-stricken individual's plight and say "Oh well these are the choices you made in life!" In order to make informed choices in life, people need to know what they are. Studies of poverty and its negative ramifications are not normally studied by those who perpetually experience it, but at heart, all educated and privileged-background people must have some idea of what it must be like. It is therefore, disingenuous to opt for selective perception or to pretend that if groups of people possess ''poor life skills'' or reside in slum dwellings, it is their "own fault", or that they possess ''inferior genes". It is the wealthy who are dictating society's pace and goals because they have been facilitated to do so. It simply is not feasible to imply that if individuals have not been facilitated to participate in those goals, they must be maladjusted or inundated with personality defects. Unless there is an obvious organic problem, ‘maladjustment’ is a social evaluation. 

It is purported that many 'experts' in studying depression, live lives of luxury and have no first-hand idea of the causes of it. "Their ivory towers and patronising arrogance in their ignorance means they are totally insular but feel that they still have exclusive rights to dictate and diagnose ." One example is that when a young guy went to his GP, he told the doctor,  "I think I am suffering from depression." The GP replied, "I'll make the diagnosis if you don't mind." Another example is that when a young woman mentioned to her GP that she was so depressed due to her poverty he suggested she attended a specialist appointment some remote place ten miles away. ''I can't. I haven't got a car. I can't afford one." she replied tearfully. ''Oh'', replied the GP extremely surprised, ''Then how do you people get about?'' [!]. 

It is true that people with comfortable and wealthy lives can also suffer with moderate to severe depression due to bereavement, clinical reasons or other stressful factors but poverty can last a lifetime and many people state that they would rather be rich and depressed than poor and depressed since unlike the wealthy, the poor cannot buy any respite or escape the continuous anxiety regarding bills and poor housing. Some people purport that there are considerable numbers of individuals who never feel depressed irrespective of whether they are poor or not. Some question whether those susceptible to depression are over sensitive whilst others question whether the non-depressed are not sensitive enough. Perceptions of depression change throughout the centuries. In his work, The English Malady, George Cheyne [1733], wrote that “fools, weak or stupid persons, heavy and dull souls are seldom troubled with vapours or lowness of the spirit.”

Some health professionals are aware of the depression and poverty rife in Western societies. In solidarity is the Best Medicine, the Canadian physician, Susan Rosenthal, recognised that most of her patient's problems were rooted in social conditions that were outside of her control. The best she could do was try and treat their symptoms. She states that professionals are trained to manage capitalism not to challenge it: 

Physicians tend to be a conservative section of the middle class, well-rewarded for managing the misery that capitalism creates. I could find no medical organisations that questioned this role, only reform groups offering different levels of misery management....... I learned that capitalism is the system

of social relationships in which we are all immersed. We are born into it, we are shaped by it, and we recreate it every day. Capitalism is cruel and heartless and tears people apart, mentally, physically and socially. In order to survive, we must replace it with a system based on equality and reciprocity, a system in which we all share the world's work.

To reiterate, it is suffice to say that the majority of people who research depression and poverty are usually the least likely to experience it. However, Susan Rosenthal and psychologist, Paul Albee [1986], contend that those who care about preventing psychological casualties should focus their attention on supporting programmes that alleviate discrimination, poverty and demoralising situations. The causes of poverty and its effects must be apparent by now. It is stratification - the justification of occupational hierarchies for the convenience of ensuring that "all areas of human want and need are covered." Low pay facilitates enormous profits for employers. It provides a baseline of failure and a point of reference for the non-poor. There will soon be as many social workers as there are poor, undereducated and stressed families needing assistance; hardly sensible economics. Moreover, the correlation between low socioeconomic status, depression and poor educational attainment has been well-documented for centuries. There is little point in keep creating unnecessary jobs by paying researchers out of taxpayers money to gather reams of information on something we already know. For whom exactly are they compiling the information - is it just to compare notes? The money would be better spent on actually eradicating poverty by providing people with a decent living wage. Prevention of depression and anxiety involves empowering those who have learned attitudes of helplessness. It involves empowering women. It involves education. It involves the eradication of stratification by changing environments that breed inequality, poor wages and poverty in its many guises. To paraphrase Paul Albee, it also involves everything aimed at improving the human condition, of making life more fulfilling and meaningful and it begins with the children.



Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini

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