The impact of inequality on mental health

As humans, we tend to explain the universe in ways that comfort us emotionally and psychologically. We often try to explain our world in ways that reassure us that we have complete control over our lives and then we dig our heels in when that view of the world is challenged. Psychologists suggest that this way of thinking buffers us from the reality that the universe if chaotic, that there are plenty of things we can’t predict or prevent, and that there are natural forces beyond our control that influence our fate (read about attribution theory here).

In cases of those struggling with mental health issues, poverty, or homelessness, the tendency is to believe that those individuals have somehow done something to bring those problems on themselves, that they are responsible for their struggles. The problem is that this way of thinking, although comforting, is often incorrect. In reality, mental health difficulties, poverty, and homelessness are the result of powerful and oppressive political forces. With regard to mental illness more specifically, the scientific data suggests this is often the result of poverty and homelessness, not the cause of it.

It may be uncomfortable for many of us to accept that fact, and this is for a number of reasons. First, it is uncomfortable because doing so exposes the fact that we were incorrect in how we’ve been thinking about the causes of poor mental health. It can sometimes be difficult to admit we’ve been wrong in how we’re thinking about a problem, and this would be no exception. Second, it acknowledges the uncertainty and chaos associated with our personal existence. There are factors that influence our fate and many of these factors are currently out of our control. Part of accepting this fact is learning to tolerate the discomfort that goes along with acknowledging uncertainty and a lack of control. Third, if we accept that mental illness is often the result poverty and homelessness and not the cause of it, then it means we have to change how we go about solving the problem of mental illness. If we incorrectly assign personal blame to others for their predicament, then it absolves us of the responsibility of having to help them. However, if we acknowledge there are oppressive forces contributing to a person’s problems, well, then I guess we all have a problem. 

I hate to say it, but I think we all have a problem: Click here. 

Now this suggestion often surprises people, but one of the most effective (and cost-effective) interventions that can be done to improve mental health is to guarantee (1) housing and (2) a basic annual salary to each and every member of society, regardless of their employment situation. Don’t believe me? Click here to read about Canada’s forgotten experiment where they did exactly that and measured the results. People often get angry when this solution is suggested (“You can’t just GIVE people money!”), but the irony is that this strategy would actually save us money in the long run. So even the most conservative person should find this strategy favourable.

In brief, mental illness is a big problem with even bigger contributing factors…and solving this problem requires a corresponding big change to how we think. This change starts in our own minds, as we begin to think more clearly about all the factors that contribute to mental health and mental illness, as supported by the facts and the data. (Click here for an British 2010 report listing a series of proposed policy objectives for enhancing health through increased equality.)

Below is an excellent infographic (from describing the relationship between poverty and mental health. Thanks Scarlett Jackson for sharing this!



2 thoughts on “The impact of inequality on mental health

  1. Well said. Mental Illness with all its loses, especially in the area of employment, leaves a person in poverty most of the time. On top of that it runs in families, the same with poverty for the most part. A guaranteed annual income for all is the way to go. Right now people with chronic mental illness are forced to live on government medical disabilities that leave them living below the official poverty line. It makes no sense that people who are sick for no fault of their own and are unable to work are forced to live in poverty which creates stress that aggravates their conditions and costs people, families, and society more.

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