Addressing the Mental Health Consequences of Poverty in Sacramento


Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations once said: “Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere." There is a great public misconception that poverty and malnutrition are limited to developing countries in Asia and Africa. At present, more than 30 million Americans experience hunger on a regular basis while more than 8.5 million individuals (including almost 3 million children), go hungry on a daily basis. Being malnourished has far-reaching consequences for the residents of Sacramento that go beyond the commonplace weight-loss and irritability often associated with the limited consumption of nutritious foods.  According to the National Institutes of Health, many malnourished individuals don’t display any physical symptoms which make it much harder to detect and treat, often to the grave detriment of the community. 

Poverty affects the mind as well as the body

It is impossible to ignore the link between poverty and a variety of mental health concerns. Poverty can have a severe impact on mental health through a variety of biological and social systems operating at various levels including families and local communities. Being needy is a major cause of stress which, in turn, can lead to more severe mental health conditions such as depression.

Destitution destroys confidence

When you are unable to look after yourself or provide for your family, your confidence can take a serious knack and your self-worth can diminish to almost nothing.  Many individuals turn to alcohol and drugs to numb their pain which simply increases the ferocity of the situation. Complete social isolation is commonplace in poorer communities as anxiety and embarrassment prevail over the need for human contact. As the body becomes weaker, the mind soon follows, soon causing an individual to spiral downwards into a seemingly hopeless abyss.

The children are the most affected 

The long-term mental health effects of poverty are a lot more alarming in children than they are adults. Poverty and subsequent malnutrition can be downright toxic to children as the constant exposure to stress and trauma can trigger the release of harmful amounts of cortisol that can have a detrimental effect on a child’s developing brain. Researchers at Cornell University found that children who grow up in poverty are not only more likely to have reduced short-term spatial memory but are also more prone to aggressive and antisocial behavior such as bullying, making it incredibly difficult to excel at school. Children subjected to severe poverty also tend to have nightmares more frequently and are increasingly prone to low levels of self-confidence, eating disorders and thoughts of self-harm.

The importance of emergency intervention

It has been determined that adults who grew up impoverished are susceptible to increased levels of chronic physical stress right through adulthood.  Emergency intervention, where possible, is of the utmost importance from both a physical and mental perspective and, once again, even more so where children are involved. Community initiatives such as feeding schemes and clothing drives are of immense benefit to poverty-stricken individuals and families. While it is of vital importance to meet these basic human needs, it is also important to address any underlying mental issues in a timeous fashion to try and limit the inevitable consequences. The Sacramento County Department of Health Services is able to assist in a number of ways to help ensure that vulnerable individuals receive the mental health treatment they require.    

Poverty is in no way fastidious and can strike anyone at any time. There is no guarantee that even the most affluent family will always have their riches to rely on. By assisting the needy in whichever way possible, they are afforded the best chance possible at achieving good levels of both physical and mental health.

If you’d like to help those in need in our community, please consider volunteering, hosting a drive, or making a donation to SFBFS.

Submitted by: Jane Lloyd
Freelance Writer