SEATTLE — Diseases that affect the general population can affect those in poverty at a significantly higher rate, including mental illnesses. Depression is no exception. While anyone can suffer from depression, regardless of socioeconomic status, poverty exacerbates the initial disease and causes interference in a person’s ability to receive adequate medical care. But, if the factors of poverty that contribute to depression are reduced, then cases of depression should be reduced as well.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines depression as a “depressed or sad mood, diminished interest in activities which used to be pleasurable, weight gain or loss, psycho-motor agitation or retardation, fatigue, inappropriate guilt, difficulties concentrating, as well as recurrent thoughts of death.” Depression can cause strains on relationships that can weaken a family and, if untreated or improperly treated, it can become a chronic illness. People who are depressed are also at greater risk to engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and sleep disturbance.
Gallup looked at the link between poverty and chronic diseases in the United States, and the findings are sobering. Of the chronic health problems compared, six out of eight health problems were found to be moderately to severely higher in people living in poverty: depression, asthma, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attacks. Depression showed the largest difference, with 30.9 percent of those affected living in poverty and 15.8 percent of those not living in poverty affected.
The differences did not end there. Medical care, fresh produce, safe places for exercise and other things that help to reduce depression are all much harder for a person in poverty to access. Because of the disparity in resources, one researcher wrote in the report with these findings that “depression could lead to poverty in some circumstances, poverty could lead to depression in others or some third factor could be causing both […] Regardless, it is clear that those in poverty are twice as likely as those who aren’t to have ever been diagnosed with a potentially debilitating illness and one that could be impeding them from getting out of poverty.”
Even if treated properly, one aspect of depression may remain. The University of Illinois at Chicago conducted research that showed that even when depression is latent, it causes hyper-connected cognitive and emotional networks in the area of the brain associated with rumination, the act of constantly thinking about a problem with no solution in sight. Rumination was not as apparent in fMRI scans of participants without a history of depression.
Because poverty can be so closely linked to depression, the inverse is then true — when poverty decreases, so does depression. The work to end poverty helps to reduce many of the gaps that people in poverty experience compared to their wealthier counterparts. Access to medical care allows depression to be diagnosed much more quickly, especially because people who are not in poverty usually have a family doctor who will have consistent medical records. Also, work is being done to provide access to fresh, nutrient dense food for those in poverty.
The United Nations is addressing many of these issues with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). When MDG 1 is achieved, Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger, the problem of those in poverty being able to access the same food as those not in poverty is moving forward helping overall health. MDG 5, Improve Maternal Health, will help women who might be suffering from post-partum depression. The access to medical care will help those women gain the support they need during a possible bout of depression. Even MDG 6, Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases, is important to reducing depression because it will provide medical care to communities as a whole. When a doctor is conducting an exam, there is a good chance that they will screen for depression. The overall work of reducing poverty is also work to reduce depression and the link the two share.
Depression does not have to be a cycle associated with poverty. Real medical help is available, but it needs to be accessible for the masses. The link between poverty and depression should not and cannot be ignored.