Poverty and Mental Health

It is Mental Health Awareness Week, and many good, and decent people are asking us to be “aware” that struggling with mental ill – health is neither shameful, nor a reason to judge others as lesser or inferior. It is an important conversation, and one which has been far too many years in the making. However, all too often it seems that any structural analysis or awareness is missing. Mental ill-health is portrayed as a magical curse, which arrives, and departs equally inexplicably.

In considering the structural issues one of the theories which I keep returning to is the idea of the internalized microaggressions of poverty. Microagressions are defined as –


A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
‘the students made signs detailing microaggressions they had heard or experienced

Oxford Living Dictionary

One must be careful when adopting or adapting language which has been used to describe the experiences of people of colour, especially when our society has silenced them and continues to do. however I hope in this case not to speak over those who talk of racial microagresions but to use the concept to discuss how poverty impacts on a systematic scale, and how it continues to do so even when we are no longer in poverty,

I have to say something here about class. Poverty and class are not the same thing, and are not interchangeable. The privileges and advantages which come to someone who is middle class or above are often quite separate from the advantages income can bring. BY the same token short term experiences of poverty whilst uncomfortable very rarely erase the privileges of class. When poverty and a lower rung on the socio-economic scale do intersect however there can be a tidal wave which has an overwhelming effect on someones mental well being,

We so often make assumptions, moral ones, about those who cannot afford those things deemed necessary. The Victorians divided society into the deserving and undeserving poor, and we do not seem to have let go of that legacy. We visit our modern bedlam on shows like Cant Pay We will take it away, and the now thankfully cancelled Jeremy Kyle. We attack and berate people as feckless, or lazy, or worthy of mockery, based on the size of their bank balance.

These messages, of being unworthy, not deserving even simple pleasures, of taking up space which belongs to others deemed more fit because they have more money can have a huge, often lifelong impact.

Then there are the stressors and behaviours which we might not even realise are the result of previous poverty. The clamminess of your hands, accelerated heart rate and anxiety when you go to pay for something with a card might seem normal, until you discover that not everyone feels this way when they go to pay. Elevated stress levels, often in a way which resembles a trauma response, resulting from having lived on that knifes edge when the card could be declined at any transaction. Just one example, but from over- full fridges, to a fear of buying anything, the impact can bee seen in so many different ways.

The affects of poverty are also about the immediate impact, the physical, emotional and psychological of not being able to meet our basic needs It is next to impossible to be mentally healthy when we cannot feed ourselves, or our families, or are vulnerably housed. I believe though we also need to consider its long term damage, and try to understand why and how entire lives may be affected. We need not only awareness of mental health issues, but awareness of the things which cause mental ill health. If we are not willing to tackle the impact of issues such as poverty awareness becomes merely a buzzword, without substance or the ability to enact real change.

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