People who grew up in poverty are more likely to show signs of mental disorder, such as social withdrawal and depression as they grow into adulthood.

This was part of the findings of a recent study from the University of California (UC) Davis, United States (U.S.), and Concordia University, Canada.

The scientists linked early exposure to poverty in childhood to developing a psychosis-spectrum disorder by the time the affected children reach adulthood.

According to the study’s authors, the results of the study suggest that intervention through social policies and investment in neighbourhood improvements, as well as identifying those most in need of help by observing certain child behaviours, could prevent future debilitating illnesses and the societal and personal costs associated with them.

Scientists Link Poverty in Childhood to Mental Health Problems

Paul D. Hastings, professor in the department of Psychology at UC Davis and the lead author of the paper, said that one important message to take from this study is that the stresses and chronic day-to-day challenges of living in under-resourced or impoverished communities can undermine the well-being of individuals whether they seem to have a vulnerability or not.

He added that while heredity is a major factor in predicting mental illness, bipolar disorder and other disorders involving psychoses, this study provides clear evidence that environmental factors experienced in childhood also affect future mental health.

In carrying out the study, the researchers followed families living in low income urban communities in French-speaking parts of Montréal, Québec, comprising, in the end, nearly 11,000 individuals. Peer reports of behaviour at school were used to assess children’s aggression, withdrawal and likeability.

Beginning in the mid 2000s, Hastings, Schwartzman and their colleagues began reviewing the previous three decades of individual medical records for the family members and census data on neighbourhood economic conditions. On average the children were about 10 years old at the start of the study, and were followed until they were 40.

During the same period, their parents aged from their late 30s into their late 60s. Residents of Québec receive government-funded health care, and the researchers were able to analyse numerically coded records of the subject families in order to identify psychiatric diagnoses.

Because the researchers were able to identify parental diagnoses in the sample studied, their analyses were able to predict the children’s future prevalence of psychiatric disorders above and beyond what would result from heredity, Hastings said.

More than six percent of the children studied had developed schizophrenia, bipolar disorder with psychosis, and other psychosis-spectrum disorders by middle-adulthood. The study concluded that children who grew up in the most economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods had the greatest likelihood of being diagnosed with mental health problems.

The study also found childhood social behaviours to be strong predictors of psychotic illnesses. In particular, children who were evaluated by their peers as both highly aggressive and highly withdrawn were likely to develop psychosis-spectrum disorders if they also grew up in more impoverished neighbourhoods.

Hastings said these findings suggest that intervention with young children exhibiting these complex patterns of antisocial behaviour could improve outcomes.

The study could help improve efforts to predict, identify and prevent serious mental illnesses, he said. “Once psychosis spectrum disorders take hold they are difficult to treat. It is kind of like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and similar illnesses,” Hastings added.

Disorders like mental illness really become chronic diseases that require constant care, management, and maintenance. Reducing them by improving neighbourhood conditions for all families in economically disadvantaged communities, and working directly with the families of children showing risky profiles of behaviour, could improve the quality of people’s lives and markedly reduce healthcare costs.

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