JOHANNESBURG, South Africa- It is commonly understood that children living in poverty have shorter life spans. For instance, the child mortality rate in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, experiences 50.92 deaths for every 1,000 live births, compared to the US at 5.9 deaths for every 1,000 live births. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
Poverty, in terms of global poverty, comprises those living on less than $2.50 a day. Currently, 1 billion children worldwide live in poverty. Children living in this type of extreme poverty encounter all sorts of disadvantages. They lack food, electricity, sanitary water, they are malnourished, lack basic vaccines and other preventable health care services, can be stunted in their growth, and suffer from preventable diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia. Furthermore, children living in poverty are also exposed to significant amounts of stress. These stressful environments can consist of noise, poor housing, violence and family turmoil.
Recently, a new hardship faced by children in poverty has been uncovered. A connection has been found between children who grow up in poverty suffering mental, psychosocial, and physical health issues once they reach adulthood. These issues consist of depression, substance abuse, smoking-related cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, stomach cancer, hemorrhagic stroke, coronary heart disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, and intellectual impairments.
Currently, an estimated 85 percent of citizens in developing countries suffer from various mental disorders, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Little has been done to address the physical burdens caused by poverty, while mental health concerns have historically been overlooked due to lack of awareness. For instance, in low-income countries depression represents almost as large a problem as does malaria (3.2% versus 4.0% of the total disease burden), but the funds being invested to combat depression are very small compared to those allocated to fight malaria.
Recently, researchers conducted a study on adults who had grown up in poverty. This study demonstrated that children who experienced poverty at the age of 9 have a reduced ability to handle stress as adults. Professor K. Luan Phan, one of the study’s authors, stated, “Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult.” Furthermore, the study indicated that even when children rise up out of poverty as adults, they continue to be more susceptible, compared to the economically advantaged, to certain mental and physical health hardships. However, most children who are born into poverty remain in poverty through adulthood, creating a vicious cycle.
One example is provided through a study conducted in South Africa. The study demonstrated that children orphaned due to AIDS have significantly higher rates of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation than non-orphaned children.
According to WHO, mental health issues cannot be considered in isolation from other areas of development, such as education, employment, emergency responses and human rights capacity building. Therefore, WHO suggests these evidenced based strategies be implemented into development approaches:
– Mental health services should be integrated systematically into all health services including primary level care.
– Mental health issues should be integrated into broader health policies, programs, and partnerships.
– Mental health should be included in services during and after emergencies.
– Mental health issues should be taken into account within social services and housing development.
– Mental health issues should be mainstreamed into education, and children with mental and psychosocial disabilities should be supported to accessible schooling.
– Employment and income generating opportunities must be created for people with mental and psychosocial disabilities.
– Human rights should be strengthened by developing policies and laws that protect the rights of people with mental and psychosocial disabilities.
– There should be investment in developing the capacity of people with mental and psychosocial disabilities to participate in public affairs, including the support of service user-led movements.
– Development actors should create mechanisms to involve people with mental and psychosocial disabilities in decision-making processes.
Children who grow up with mental health issues also experience stigma, isolation, and discrimination, increasing their vulnerability. Additionally, they are marginalized from participating in social activities that reduce their involvement in civic engagements as adults. By addressing mental health issues in developing countries, more individuals will be empowered to reach their goals and participate and contribute fully in society as adults.