6 Disturbing Links Between My Mental Health and Growing Up in Poverty

Author’s Note: This article contains information about domestic abuse, which may be triggering to survivors.

Source: Unsplash

Source: Unsplash

I sat patiently, awaiting the psychologist’s evaluation of my mental state. Although I already knew his methods would prove nothing I wasn’t already aware of, I decided to cooperate when he asked me to “draw a house — any house.”

After analyzing my masterpiece, he asked me why I decided on drawing a brick house — assuming the bricks were a symbol of my guarded emotional state.

He was wrong. The bricks were not a sign of an internal barrier. They were about my desire for affluence and stability. It was the kind of house I would have liked to live in if given the opportunity.

I was in high school at the time and living at a homeless shelter with my mother, my abusive stepfather, and my three siblings. I was a teenager, cramped in a small room, navigating abuse and adolescence, and all I wanted was some space and time to take care of myself.

Privacy is a privilege not afforded to those living in poverty.

I learned to adapt quickly to changes in my environment because I had no choice and limited possibility of escape.

What I came to realize is that being in perpetual survival mode means rarely getting the opportunity to take care of your mental health.

My intent here is to provide a personal narrative of the relationship between poverty and mental health and its lasting effects.

The significance of discussing this is not only to bring awareness, but more importantly to analyze how the connection between poverty and mental health creates a cycle that does not end with the person experiencing it — even if they do manage to break free from poverty.

Keeping in mind that this is only one story and that there are many differing truths and intersecting identities that can alter experiences, these are some of the ways poverty impacted my mental health.

1. Poverty Can Make You Dependent And Dependence Contributes To Domestic Abuse

High school was not the first time my family had been homeless. It was not a choice made by lack of work ethic or laziness. It was a matter of unfortunate circumstance.

My family had moved to the States from Puerto Rico when I was in elementary school because the toxic and violent environment we lived in was a danger to our physical safety.

I vividly remember being five years old and falling asleep to the sound of gunshots outside my window — the sign of a neglected neighborhood and a neglected people.

When we moved to the States, none of us knew the language, and although that made things like finding housing and employment difficult, that was the least of our problems.

My abusive stepfather had moved to the States before us and was therefore more knowledgeable of the new environment and more resourceful.

He made himself our provider, knowing we would be dependent on him for our survival.

He was aware how vulnerable this made us. Even if we had the courage to speak up, who could we tell?

As a result, we couldn’t, not even if we wanted to — at least not without some help.

And we knew no one.

Both patriarchy and capitalism had a role in the relationship between poverty and violence we experienced. Patriarchy requires the threat of abuse to maintain control.

My family’s abuser didn’t have to be physically abusive every day for us to know who was in charge.

A simple glare or tone of voice to assert his dominance was enough to keep us complacent. Often he would use the excuse that children who are not properly disciplined by their fathers are worse off in the long run.

Capitalism made economic independence extremely important to our public image. So important that it often prevented us from seeking out charitable resources for fear of negative social biases.

During times of economic prosperity when my family had a physical place of our own and were able to afford material goods not necessary for our survival, we were still being abused.

The difference was that it was harder to leave because leaving meant giving up many comforts and material belongings that could not be taken with us. It meant entering a period of shame that came along with depending on others for survival.

I could tell that apart from keeping us safe, my mother also struggled with the desire to give us the material things we didn’t really need, but that she knew we wanted.

The fact that she couldn’t always provide this made her feel like an unfit parent.

Poverty is both a cause and effect of violence.

Women living in poverty are more likely to experience violence, and domestic violence often leads to poverty when women attempt to leave these toxic environments.

Just the fact that my mom was raised in poverty herself and was abused as a child made her chances of falling back into that cycle as an adult even greater. It also meant that our chances were greater.

The fact that these experiences were common in her life and that she knew nothing else made it difficult to see the early signs of abuse and escape before the harm was irreversible.

In turn, growing up in poverty meant that my mom’s primary goal was to provide for us in a way she was never provided for. That also made it difficult for her to recognize the abuse because our physical needs were being met by the same person who was harming us.

This made leaving seem like the irresponsible choice.

My mom had me when she was fifteen years old, and since then she had been controlled by the men in her life. That meant that if she left, she would have had to start over and be free to make her own decisions.

This can be a terrifying reality for people who have never had such freedom.

2. Dependability On Charitable Resources Affects Mental Health And Makes You Vulnerable To Danger

I was nine years old when my mother made the brave leap to leave my stepfather and lead us to safety. But leaving wasn’t the end of our struggles, especially for a single mom with four young children.

In the safety of the many domestic abuse shelters we inhabited over the years, we caught a glimpse of normalcy and what it was like to live freely — to speak freely without fear of retribution.

It was a time when I was allowed to be myself.

Unfortunately, I had been suppressed for so long that I didn’t know what being myself even meant. I didn’t know how to use my voice. That is something that I continue to struggle with today.

I often found myself taking on the interests of other people, the people I admired, because I wasn’t given the opportunity to know myself apart from what I was like in survival mode. 

That started to slightly shift once I began living in shelters. These shelters were full of resources to help women gain and maintain their independence, but they were also flawed.

However, the time frame allotted — which was typically about a month — for women to get back on their feet and leave the shelter was not always long enough to overcome the internal suffering that prevented us from doing just that.

It would seem like enough time, but getting to safety was only the first part of our recovery. Once we were physically safe, we were then able to feel and struggle through our emotions.

For my mother, that struggle meant a period of depression that made it difficult to move forward in the time frame we lived in the shelters.

On multiple occasions my family transferred from domestic abuse shelters to homeless shelters.

At the homeless shelters, the chances of our abuser finding us and reeling us back in were higher, because the security level in these places was much lower.

Living in homeless shelters exposed us to  a lot of things that negatively affected our mental health. Reports show that 66% of homeless people experience some sort of mental health problem and/or substance abuse. That statistic is much more disconcerting when seen in real life.

It was clear that the people we encountered in these shelters were hurting just as we were. It was evident in the feel of the environment and tensions were high.

The constant reminder of the hardships we had in common with these people did not help the healing process and at times made us feel hopeless and wary about our own future.

People who are dependent on charitable resources are also vulnerable to the flaws of those resources. People living in homeless shelters are often exposed to things like substance abuse, violence, and diseases.

Apart from the stigma that affects mental health and a lack of freedom, exposure to a volatile environment that can be worse than what is left behind is enough to avoid utilizing these resources.

Although these shelters provided a roof over our heads and kept us warm at night, this didn’t mean we always felt safe. Coming across drug paraphernalia was a common occurrence and the cleanliness of the rooms, on the occasion we had our own room, was questionable.

Making the choice of whether to stay at a shelter or to stay on the street is a legitimate decision when considering health and safety. 

3. Poverty Complicates And Interferes With Educational Experiences

School was a safe haven for me. It was a place I could escape the reality of my life and immerse myself in knowledge.

Although I was curious about so many things, I could never focus long enough to absorb the material. My mind was elsewhere and many teachers complained I was not paying attention in class.

When it came time for standardized testing, I rarely scored high. I just didn’t understand the language or the culture and there was no one at home who could help me. My less than average scores further solidified my thoughts that I would always remain poor because I was not smart enough to advance in life.

I was sent to counselors often during secondary school. There were many psychological evaluations done, and most of them concluded I had some sort of learning disability. But no further investigation was done.

It wasn’t until college I found out I had Attention Deficit Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This is common among students growing up poor. Many of these students (75-80%) who have difficulty in school are not receiving the attention they need in order to diagnose potential learning disabilities or mental health problems.

It is hard to improve if you don’t know what is wrong to begin with. This can take a toll on mental health because it isolates children and prevents them from making academic progress.

I went through a lot of shame and feeling like I just wasn’t smart enough, because I didn’t know what was causing my academic struggles.

It meant that I didn’t put in as much effort because I didn’t think there was anything I could do to succeed.

Studies show that poverty has a significant effect on academic performance. This is because poverty and the stressors associated with it impact the mental capacity of students.

This is not a determinant of their intelligence; however, it is a sign of a deeper problem.

I couldn’t focus on academics or even build on potential academic interests until I wasn’t worried about having enough to eat.

Things like malnutrition, sleep deprivation, and lack of quality health care contribute to the achievement gap. This gap is even wider among minority students.

Unfortunately, even if students who are raised in poverty reach higher education, the obstacles they face affect their chances of graduation.

Although I was proud of myself for getting into college, I also felt like I didn’t belong. Not only did I feel like I didn’t belong, but I also felt I didn’t deserve to be there.

The guilt I felt for leaving my family behind to attend college made me feel like I abandoned them after everything we had been through together.

All of this plus my lack of financial literacy made being on my own in college and getting to graduation that much harder.

Not to mention attempting to assimilate into a college culture I didn’t understand and that no one in my family could guide me through.

4. The Effects Of Poverty On Mental Health Can Make Navigating Friendships Challenging

Forming genuine relationships with other students was extremely difficult particularly in elementary school, because I never felt my true self was worth knowing.

Poverty is a topic that makes people uncomfortable, and the fear of people feeling sorry for me kept me from speaking about my experiences.

I didn’t want my friends to know that I didn’t own my own bed and that I slept on the floor – that’s not relatable (or so I assumed).

I didn’t want them to know I was on welfare and that I got my often-expired food from pantries.

I developed social anxiety, and it became increasingly painful to speak overtime, even in small groups. This got in the way of many opportunities.

This continued into my college years when I developed imposter syndrome.

The development of healthy social skills happens at an early age and affects how we socialize and relate to the world in the long run. For many people, growing up in poverty means they did not always have the time to form stable and reliable relationships necessary to build on their social skills.

In my experience, I was unable to trust the intentions of the people around me. Although I was easily able to make acquaintances, it was difficult to form and maintain true lasting friendships based on trust.

Because I was always in survival mode, it was difficult to form relationships based on common interests and compatibility instead of forming relationships that fulfilled a need.

No wonder the people I considered friends were the social workers and teachers who protected me.

Poverty also affects behavior. Because children living in poverty are more likely to experience discrimination and exclusion from social groups, they are also more likely to develop antisocial behavior. This leads to further exclusion and can lead to more serious consequences, like bullying.

In fact, children who have experienced poverty are 12% more likely to experience bullying and 16% more likely to bully other children.

I still remember feeling so betrayed in elementary school when a student convinced one of my few friends not to be friends with me, because I was strange.

I remember frantically screaming at her and telling her I hated her. I was so angry and I didn’t understand why.

This only contributed further to my isolation and exclusion from any social groups for fear of being hurt again.

All of these factors contributed to emotional instability and social insecurities that made friendships difficult to maintain.

5. Poverty Means A Lack Of Access To Quality Health Care

By the time I graduated college, I was aware of the mental health issues I was struggling with.

However, there was not much I could do about it. Now that I had graduated, I didn’t have access to the health care I had while enrolled.

The medication I had started while in college was no longer accessible to me, and the process of attaining health care came with its own barriers that left me without my medication for a year.

That year out of college was the worst mentally, emotionally, and especially financially. Although it was nothing new to me, this time I was experiencing all I had in the past on my own.

Not only was my mental health deteriorating, but it seemed all that could go wrong with my body physically did go wrong.

I had not visited a dentist in years, but I didn’t realize how bad the situations was until one of my teeth fell out while eating — a cavity with a filling that had not been replaced in years.

Access to quality health care is not only a financial problem for people experiencing poverty. Other barriers include availability, acceptability, and cultural competence.

Even when quality health care becomes available, the amount of time people have to wait before they can be seen doesn’t happen fast enough. There is also the problem of location. Finding affordable health care often means traveling long distances, which may not be a feasible option.

People of color not only have difficulty in accessing affordable quality health care, they also face a lack of cultural competence from health care providers. This means unqualified providers are insensitive to their cultural needs, which can make the experience uncomfortable.

This is a significant reason why people of color may avoid receiving necessary care. For years, I avoided much needed therapy, because I feared the people deemed most qualified to help would be quick to make assumptions about my lived experiences based on my culture and where I came from.

6. Mental Health Issues Contribute To The Poverty Cycle and Poverty Contributes to Mental Health Issues

Soon I found myself not being able to hold a job without having a mental break down. I would find reasons to not go into work so I could stay home and sleep all day.

The little funds I did have deteriorated, and I was left with nothing except for an insurmountable amount of high interest loans and an eviction notice taped to my door.

Once again I was homeless. I was forced to move in with my partner and his family. Once again I was living in a room full of people with no space and no privacy.

I fell deeper into depression and this time it was in front of people who I desperately wanted to impress. People who I wanted to see me as an independent and capable being.

I felt worthless and lazy, surely I wasn’t the only one who had experienced these struggles, but I felt like the only one not working hard enough to surpass them.

I was back where I had started at the beginning of the poverty cycle.

Understanding this cycle means acknowledging that there are many intersecting circumstances that make it nearly impossible to escape and alleviating poverty means considering these intersections and understanding that none of the causes and effects happen alone.

***

I know now that the impact poverty has on mental health is lasting and it doesn’t disappear when social or economic circumstances change. Studies show effects of poverty such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD extend far into adulthood and extend generations.

This means even those who escape poverty will continue to struggle with its effects, but it also means their children will too.

I know this, because I lived my life thus far striving to escape the effects of my experiences.

But this cycle is a roundabout without exit and will continue to be until those who benefit from social and economic inequality make the changes to allow for those exits.

Katherine Garcia is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a recent college graduate with a BA in Radio, TV, Film and soon to be graduate school student pursuing a Masters in Women and Gender Studies. She is passionate about LGBTQIA+ rights, domestic violence advocacy, Latinx issues, and mental health awareness, as well as 80s hair metal, used book stores, astrology, and chocolate. You can follow her on Twitter @TheLazyVegan1.