A new study, published in The Lancet Public Health, investigates the mental health effects of transitioning into poverty on children and their mothers. The results of the large-scale, longitudinal study with data from over 6,000 families in the UK, suggest that moving into poverty has negative mental health effects on both children and mothers. However, when mothers had less psychological distress, their children had fewer behavioral issues.
“Findings from our study indicate that increases in child poverty in the UK are likely to negatively affect child and maternal mental health, independent of employment transitions and other important confounders,” write the researchers, led by Sophie Wickham, postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Public Health and Policy at the University of Liverpool.
Poor mental health in children is a significant problem in the UK, with about 12% of children aged 10-15 reporting mental health symptoms. Childhood mental health challenges are related to a number of poor outcomes such as more school absences, impaired cognitive development, and social isolation. Research has also shown that mothers’ mental health is related to their children’s mental health.
With 19% of UK children living in poverty, the authors write, “Child poverty is an important risk factor that might partly explain poor mental health outcomes in UK children.” In fact, research shows that children who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are 2-3 times as likely to experience mental health challenges. Studies have also found links between poverty and chronic pain, cognitive function, and mental illness in adults, and brain changes in children.
Although research has found that improvement in financial resources is linked to children’s improved mental health, there is a lack of studies investigating the impact of becoming impoverished on mental health in children. Therefore, the authors sought to “assess whether or not movement into poverty during a child’s early life is relevant for children’s and mothers’ mental health.”
The authors collected data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Children who were born between September 2000 and January 2002 were included in the study if they had not experienced mental health problems or poverty before their 3rd birthdays. Surveys were conducted at 9 months and 3, 5, 7, and 11 years. As a proxy for mental health, the authors measured children’s socioemotional behavioral problems and mother’s psychological distress. The authors defined poverty “as household equivalised income of less than 60% of national median household income.” A total of 6,603 families were included in the study. The authors report:
“844 (14%) children had a new transition into poverty compared with 5219 (86%) who remained out of poverty. 217 (4%) children and 888 (17%) mothers who did not transition into poverty experienced a new onset of mental health problems compared with 70 (8%) children and 255 (30%) mothers who did transition into poverty.”
The researchers find that children who experience a transition into poverty are 1.41 times as likely to display socioemotional behavioral difficulties. “Male sex, young maternal age, the mother not being in employment, and the mother having a previous diagnosis of depression were associated with greater odds of child socioemotional behavioral difficulties,” write the authors.
Mothers who transitioned into poverty were 1.44 times as likely to experience psychological distress. “Non-white ethnicity, not being in employment, being a single carer, and having a previous diagnosis of depression were associated with increased odds of psychological distress in mothers, whereas being an older mother at the child’s birth and having a female child were protective,” find the authors.
Children with mothers who experienced psychological distress were 4.26 times as likely to have socioemotional behavioral difficulties. Therefore, having a mother who did not experience psychological distress mitigated the effect of poverty on children’s mental health.
These results provide further evidence that childhood mental health concerns may be reduced by providing financial and economic resources that decrease poverty rates and support mothers who are financially disadvantaged. The authors recommend continuing policies in the UK that provide tax credits to families in poverty. They conclude, “Our findings reinforce the need to maintain an income-based measure of child poverty and use it to monitor trends and the effects on health of policies that affect children’s lives.”
Wickham, S., Whitehead, M., Taylor-Robinson, D., & Barr, B. (2017). The effect of a transition into poverty on child and maternal mental health: A longitudinal analysis of the UK Millennium Cohort Study. The Lancet Public Health. Advance Online Publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(17)30011-7 (Abstract)