Addressing the Impact of Mental Health & Poverty in America

Struggling with mental health is common. More than half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness sometime in their life, with a fifth of Americans experiencing mental health each year. However, for people living in poverty, struggling with mental health is much more common.

For example, people living in poverty are disproportionately impacted by depression: while people living in poverty account for only 11% of the U.S. population as of 2022, they account for nearly a quarter of people with depression.

Countless studies have documented the relationship between mental health and poverty—a relationship whose direction isn’t always clear. What is clear, however, is that both poverty and poor mental health are insidious forces in our society.

Here, we’ll take a look at some of the key elements for addressing mental health and poverty, including some CCHD-supported organizations that are leading the way.

1. Increase Access to Mental Healthcare

The American healthcare system faces many problems, but one of the most pressing issues is the cost. According to the 2020 Census, 28 million Americans reported having no health insurance at any point during the year.

Without health insurance, access to mental health treatment and services is difficult to come by. Even with health insurance, finding mental health treatments (which are often costly) is by no means a simple task. For the millions of Americans living in poverty, it’s nearly impossible. But the communities that are most impacted by mental health are trying to change that.

Take the CCHD-supported Chicago Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers (CCSMHC) for example. They’re working to preserve and expand access to vital mental health services in underserved Chicago neighborhoods.

For the last 30 years, the CCSMHC has advocated for Expanded Mental Health Service Providers (EMHSP). Some of their victories include:

  • Leading the passage of state laws allowing neighborhoods to fund mental health through referendums.
  • Opening the Kedzie Center, a community mental health center in Albany Park serving over 130,000 residents.
  • Seeing West Side voters overwhelmingly pass a referendum to create an EMHSP.

Affordable and accessible mental healthcare like those supported and preserved by the CCSMHC are a vital resource. And with as many as 90 million people living in medically underserved communities, EMHSPs are a critical touchpoint for community health.

2. Address Additional Systems that Keep People in Poverty

When a person loses their job or other income, the stress and anxiety can lead to a decline in mental health. Just as negative economic outcomes such as losing a job or other income exacerbate mental health challenges, positive economic outcomes improve mental health. By addressing the root causes of poverty, we can improve our communities’ mental health.

Unstable, Unaffordable Housing can Worsen Mental Health

Housing plays a critical role in mental health, providing safety, privacy, and comfort. However, with a quarter of all renters spending more than half of their income on housing, what should be a safe haven becomes a source of stress for millions. That constant stress can ultimately degrade a person’s mental health. Unstable housing conditions also lead to adverse educational outcomes and can significantly impact children’s mental health.

Numerous groups across the country are stepping up to this challenge. Some groups, like CCHD-supported People Acting Together in Howard (PATH), have taken huge strides to improve housing affordability in their communities.

Through persistent and strategic advocacy, PATH has secured a commitment to 1,000 units of affordable housing as downtown Columbia, MD is redeveloped. Additionally, PATH helped advocate for the rights of Maryland mobile homeowners, who are in precarious positions because they often don’t own the land they live on.

Groups like PATH that work to improve housing affordability can see firsthand how a safe, secure home does wonders for a community’s mental health.

Inaccessible Nutrition Can Lead to Chronic Mental Illnesses

The web of poverty makes understanding mental health a deeply complex challenge. There are countless contributing factors, many of which may seem unrelated on the surface. Nutrition, food access, and food insecurity are just a few of those factors.

Food-insecure adults may be at higher risk for chronic diseases. Those aren’t only limited to diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Depression is also a risk factor. Likewise, children who don’t have access to adequate nourishment often have weakened immune systems, which makes them vulnerable later in life to mental health challenges like depression.

CCHD-supported groups like Parents United for Change – Community Organizing and Family Issues (PUFC), Valley Verde, and La Cosecha Community Supported Agriculture are just a handful of the numerous groups across the country working to increase access to nutritional foods. In addition to increasing access, groups like La Cosecha and Valley Verde focus on food sovereignty by empowering communities to keep production local.

Increasing access to nutritional foods alone won’t necessarily bring an end to poverty or mental health challenges in underserved communities. But it is one of many strings in the web of poverty. It has a measurable impact on our communities’ mental and physical health, and it deserves our attention for that reason, among many others.

3. Reduce Stigma Around Poverty and Mental Illness

Thanks to the work of groups like the CCSMHC, getting treatment for mental health is normalized and more accessible. The work mental health advocacy groups do to make mental health as commonplace as physical health lays the foundation for broader destigmatization.

When mental healthcare is embedded in a community, people are less likely to hold prejudiced beliefs about their neighbors who are getting help. The increased presence of such groups can make a community shift from using language that discriminates, like ‘crazy,’ to language like ‘unwell,’ which focuses on care.

While disparities in mental health care are perhaps most visible in urban areas, there is a sense that they’re isolated to those locations. In reality, mental health and mental illness can be problematic for communities everywhere. Rural and immigrant communities often lack mental health services. CCHD-supported groups like Strangers No Longer and the Immigrant Worker Project are researching how to better connect immigrant workers with mental health services.

Poverty and Mental Health are Issues That Can’t be Ignored

Poverty and mental health are two closely linked issues that demand our attention. Mental health and mental illness resources need to be funded and implemented in order to serve underserved communities. Through supporting and advocating for expanded access and affordability, we can work toward dismantling the systems that allow people to fall into poverty in the first place.

How You Can Help

It’s easy to feel discouraged in the face of the injustices experienced by our most vulnerable neighbors, especially when it comes to topics as complex as mental health and mental illness. It may feel like there’s nothing you—a single person—can do. But there is.

While the ways to support people living in poverty with mental health challenges may be less direct than the ways you might help fight food insecurity, they are equally as meaningful. Here are three simple ways you can support mental health resources:

  1. Write to your representative: By calling or writing to your representative, you can encourage them to support legislation that addresses mental health directly. This includes streamlining the process for mental health providers to join healthcare networks, increasing options and protections for virtual mental health treatment, and offering free mental health services in schools.
  2. Listen: This simple act is almost categorically under-appreciated. The needs, fears, and desires of our vulnerable neighbors must be taken seriously by those in positions to help. As Pope Francis highlighted in his message for the Seventh World Day of the Poor, we need to connect with our neighbors to understand the challenges they’re facing. Next time you encounter someone struggling in your community, take the time to listen and understand their problem. It’s only when we’ve done that that we can identify a real solution.
  3. Get Involved: One of the simplest ways to support those in poverty is to directly support groups and organizations that create big change. Through getting involved with advocacy groups and charities, your time and contributions can be put to their full potential. Check out our list of CCHD-supported groups to see how you can get involved in your area, or  support the CCHD National Collection in November.  If you missed the collection, or your (arch)diocese doesn’t participate, you can support the collection online with #iGiveCatholicTogether.

About Poverty USA 

Poverty USA is an initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and was created as an educational resource to help individuals and communities to address poverty in America by confronting the root causes of economic injustice—and promoting policies that help to break the cycle of poverty.

The domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, CCHD helps low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families, and communities—and nurtures solidarity between people living in poverty and their neighbors.

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