Poverty’s Strain: How Poverty Relates to Health in Global Contexts

Around the world, individual health is determined by several factors, both physical and mental. Even those of us with an active lifestyle can be vulnerable to genetic conditions, and our dietary habits are of consideration as well. Even further, global leaders have identified numerous social determinants of health that are related to our culture and living conditions, including poverty.

Scientists have long known of the connection between poverty and mental illness, but there’s still much to be learned in terms of global public health. According to research, depression and anxiety are the most common types of mental illness in modern society, affecting about 4% of the global population. Covid-19 has made the situation even more complicated, as the virus has disproportionately impacted poor communities and nations, increasing stress levels.

Poverty, food insecurity, and the resulting stressors are powerful factors in shaping one’s physical and mental health. In many cases, countries with high rates of poverty also boast a population that’s generally unhealthy. Let’s examine how poverty is linked to individual health, which parts of the world boast an unhealthy population, and what can be done to help those in need. 

What Factors Determine Our Mental and Physical Health?

As previously mentioned, researchers have made numerous connections between living conditions and a population’s overall health. These so-called determinants of health can be physical or social, and they impact our lives in numerous ways. According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, in fact, “poor health outcomes are often made worse by the interaction between individuals and their social and physical environment.”

In terms of physical health determinants, climate change and the Covid pandemic are among the 21st century’s most threatening. But the environment in which we grow up and those we live in as adults, also have a profound impact on our health. Social determinants of health include school quality, general public safety, and accessibility of necessary resources, such as reliable transportation, a living wage, and healthy food.

Nutrition experts believe that food security affects our well being in numerous ways, and is an important factor in mental health. Medical professionals in disadvantaged communities are beginning to understand this connection, going the extra mile and getting to know patients just a little bit better.

The simple act of asking patients where they buy groceries, and whether they have a reliable way to get to the grocery store, can make a big difference when it comes to addressing poor health among disadvantaged populations. The good news is that screening for potential deficits in individual health, from housing instability to food insecurity and interpersonal violence, is increasingly common in the world’s healthcare facilities and clinics. 

Global Mental Health Numbers

Even though poverty rates may be higher in developing nations, poor mental health is a global issue. Within the U.S., about one in five people, some 52.9 million, are living with a mental illness at any given time, yet less than half of those affected do not receive treatment. The reasoning behind disparities in mental health treatment are complex, but data indicates that certain U.S. populations experience poor mental health in greater numbers, including Native Americans and the LGBTQ+ community.

Further, despite numerous breakthroughs in treatment over the years, mental health topics remain a cultural taboo in many nations around the world. In many Asian nations, in fact, mental health is such a taboo that upwards of 75% of those suffering from a mental health disorder don’t seek treatment. Healthcare access often poses a significant barrier for those in need of treatment, and few insurance carriers opt to cover mental health conditions and associated medications. Thus, even for those who may be able to get to the clinic, the cost can be prohibitive.

Working to Eliminate Common Healthcare Barriers

And, in the end, individual health really does come down to economic factors: Researchers have found a direct correlation between mental health and economic status, and the trend can be seen across the developed and developing worlds. To help curb the cycle of poverty and mental illness, healthcare professionals must take a multi-faceted approach, addressing a patient’s financial issues as well as those related to overall health. Oftentimes, when an individual’s financial situation improves, so does his or her mental health.

As we develop a greater understanding of how environmental factors such as poverty impact our mental health, for better or worse, the scope of the issue can no longer be ignored. In every corner of the globe, economic and humanitarian challenges are readily apparent, and poverty is a big part of the picture. Simply living in impoverished conditions makes for an uphill climb in terms of staying healthy over the long term, and improving quality of life can go a long way in the fight for better health on a global scale.

Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer that lives in the Northwest region of the United States. She has a particular interest in covering topics related to politics, social justice, and workplace issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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