Low Income and Its Effects on Mental Health

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Poverty can wreak havoc on personal relationships, create trauma, and lead to physical health issues. Living with low income doesn’t only impact one’s ability to have consistent access to food, safe shelter, and basic needs, but it can also severely impact one’s mental health.

How Low Income Impacts Mental Health

Mental health isn’t only a function of psychological and emotional well-being. But physical health, a sense of community, and belonging, and access to education can be major contributors to whether or not your mental health is at its best.  

Food Insecurity

Nutrition is incredibly important for our mental health, serving as a strong intervention and prevention for mental health ailments.

However, when experiencing poverty, it isn’t uncommon to go to bed hungry and survive off a diet that lacks enough nutrients.

What to Do If You're Food Insecure

If you’re experiencing food insecurity, there is help. Contact your local social services office to apply for public food assistance, formerly known as food stamps.

These government-founded provisions are accepted at most farmer’s markets and health food stores, ensuring accessibility to nutritious food options.

You can also look into your local community-supported agriculture (CSA) organization. They often offer boxes filled with fresh produce at a sliding scale rate.

Some other options include the following:

  • Local food banks, many of which can offer support regardless of income
  • WIC, another program for parents with young children
  • School-connected programs may be an option for people with children in K-12
  • Local United Ways are a good resource to connect people to agencies that provide help with food assistance, and so is the 211 page

Community Violence

Some impoverished communities may also experience high rates of crime and violence. This turmoil is linked to adverse mental health outcomes.

Engaging in crime out of survival or witnessing violence is traumatic by nature. Therefore, having repetitive exposure to trauma, which often happens in low-income communities, can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

School-to-Prison Pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to ways in which school discipline can lead to fractured family relationships, increase the risk of students dropping out of school, which statistics show ultimately lead to a higher likelihood of future incarceration.

Studies show that students of color, those with disabilities, and children of lower socioeconomic status are more vulnerable to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Suspension and Expulsion

Lower socioeconomic status is correlated with a higher risk of suspension or expulsion. While research on the exact reason why children with lower socioeconomic status are prone to higher levels of suspension is still developing, it is suggested that students with lower socioeconomic status are subject to more stressors and disadvantages than their peers with a higher socioeconomic status.

In turn, these stressors may manifest in a child engaging in disruptive externalizing behavior due to the immense stress a lower socioeconomic status can bring. For example, lacking food security may impact a child's ability to pay attention in class. As a result, school personnel may not be equipped to assess for mental health issues and instead turn to punitive discipline practices like suspension.

Suspension and expulsion can lead to a lack of connection and negative mental health outcomes. Additionally, students who experience depression regularly are more likely to be suspended.This may be due to how children and adolescents can display anger, such as through defiance or withdrawal from others.

Mental health professionals and school personnel that have not received adequate training may overlook behavioral issues as a symptom of depression or other mental health problems and instead revert to oppressive discipline practices like suspension.

Barriers to Accessing Mental Health Care

Financial constraints are major barriers to accessing mental health care for those with low income. Therapy is a luxury, with the average monthly out-of-pocket cost for mental health care being $178. There are avenues to receive subsidized or free mental health care; however, a lack of mainstream knowledge about these resources can pose an additional barrier. Some other specific financial barriers and stressors can include:

  • Lack of transportation to appointments
  • Inability of parents to take time off
  • Older children having to take care of siblings
  • Teens having to take a job to help the family

Stigma is another barrier to accessing care. Self-stigma can be particularly problematic in accessing adequate mental health care. Self-stigma is when someone has internalized negative beliefs about themselves due to mental illness. In turn, this can lead to feelings of disempowerment, decreased quality of life, and a failure to access proper treatment.

How to Access Affordable Mental Health Treatment

No one should have to go without mental health care due to financial issues. Furthermore, the stressors associated with being unable to meet your basic needs due to income restrictions only cause further mental health strain. Fortunately, there are options to get the support you need.

Some Organizations Will Help Pay for Your Therapy Sessions

Some organizations provide cash aid to fund therapy sessions. Below are a few that you can reach out to:

  • The Loveland Foundation offers therapy vouchers for Black women. You can apply to the fund every quarter and receive financial aid for four to twelve sessions.
  • National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network Therapy Fund: Specifically for the BIPOC members of the LGBTQIA+ community, you can apply for support and receive funding for up to six sessions.
  • Inclusive Therapists is a therapy directory that has also founded a therapy fund available to BIPOC adults experiencing financial hardship. Funding is available for anywhere between four to twelve sessions.
  • Open Path Collective: This organization features a diverse roster of therapists committed to providing therapy at a sliding scale rate for individuals, couples, children, adolescents, families, and groups. Session fees range between $40 and $80. 

Consider reaching out to your local social services to see if any nonprofits are providing free therapy in your area. Often, organizations will provide free services from therapists-in-training. Also, many community agencies may have medical discount cards available for purchase.

You can also check in with local universities, as some schools offer free or significantly reduced-cost counseling from students in their graduate psychology programs. Additionally, private practices may be able to offer a sliding scale.

How to Cultivate Change in Your Community

Healing is a communal practice; we all should support others in getting well. So, here are ways to help others improve their mental health, no matter their income status:

  • Donate. If you have access to increased financial privilege, give back where and how you can. Consider donating to The Loveland Foundation, the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network therapy fund, or the Inclusive Therapists fund
  • Get involved. Feel passionate about folks’ ability to access nutritious food? See if there is a community garden you can volunteer at. Maybe you’re interested in mentoring teens, and there is likely an organization in your area.
  • Factor donations into your monthly budget. If you have the means, set aside an allocated amount of your monthly income to go towards donations. This can be anything from directly giving cash to unhoused people on the streets to regularly donating to a therapy fund. 
8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.