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Poverty and mental health

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

See also separate Health Inequalities and Social Deprivation article.

There is a growing contribution of mental health problems to the global disease burden - neuropsychiatric disorders now account for about 13% of the total.1

The link between individual poverty and mental health is well known.2

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What is the relationship between poverty and mental health?3

The Global Burden of Disease study estimated that, in 2017, 792 million people worldwide reported impaired mental health, which represents almost 11% of the global population. People living in poverty are disproportionately affected by mental illness.

In 2022, a review including 42 studies with data from 7,744,469 participants found higher income inequality to be associated with poor general mental health, depression and psychosis in adults.
A review of 26 studies from mostly high-income countries reported a positive relationship between income inequality and depression, with greater impact for women and low-income subpopulations.

A review of schizophrenia incidence rates across 26 mostly high-income countries found a positive relationship between income inequality and the incidence rate of schizophrenia.

Suicide rates among young men in England and Wales increased over the period of 1950–1998, which was associated with an increase in income inequality and divorce and a decline in marriage.

In a register-based cohort study with 1,354,393 children, mental disorders were 3-4 times more prevalent in children who had parents in the lowest income percentiles. Differences were detected concerning attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in boys and depression and anxiety in girls.

Data from the British Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), an ongoing longitudinal study of a cohort of 18,827 children born in the UK in 2000-2001 found that persistent levels of poverty and transitions into poverty are strongly associated with levels of and transitions into childhood mental health problems.4

A wide range of risk factors are more prevalent among low income groups, eg, unemployment, poor housing, debt, immigration, urban environment, alcohol and substance misuse, criminality and poor physical health. All these factors contribute as mechanisms that link the structural causes of inequality to mental health outcomes.5

Further reading and references

  1. Grand Challenges in Global Mental Health - Overview; National Institute of Mental Health
  2. McGovern P; Why should mental health have a place in the post-2015 global health agenda? Int J Ment Health Syst. 2014 Oct 11;8(1):38. doi: 10.1186/1752-4458-8-38. eCollection 2014.
  3. Marbin D, Gutwinski S, Schreiter S, et al; Perspectives in poverty and mental health. Front Public Health. 2022 Aug 4;10:975482. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.975482. eCollection 2022.
  4. Fitzsimons E, Goodman A, Kelly E, et al; Poverty dynamics and parental mental health: Determinants of childhood mental health in the UK. Soc Sci Med. 2017 Feb;175:43-51. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.12.040. Epub 2016 Dec 28.
  5. Knifton L, Inglis G; Poverty and mental health: policy, practice and research implications. BJPsych Bull. 2020 Oct;44(5):193-196. doi: 10.1192/bjb.2020.78.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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