Poverty and mental health: the implications are enormous

We’ve always suspected a connection between stress and health on these pages (LSS passim). And sharper minds than our own have long advocated a link between the stresses of poverty (hunger, violence, cold etc) and later mental health outcomes. A flick through the literature reveals a torrent of studies; this example from Sage is just a jumping-off point [1] But this excerpt from it summarises the situation admirably:

While a link exists between poverty and mental health, little is known about how experiencing material hardship, such as insecurity of food, housing, utilities, and medical care, throughout early childhood affects adolescent mental health.

So far, our learning is statistical and inferential, and those with a vested interest in maintaining these deep inequalities can hade behind the fact that no individual case can be causatively linked to the general problem. Much as they did with tobacco addiction and climate change, in fact.

But researchers in the United States are on the verge of establishing a direct and demonstrable neural pathway which explains the phenomenon. Writing in New Scientist, Grace Wade explains how researchers at UC Irvine are working on a direct link between the basolateral amygdala, the brain organ that mediates stress stimuli, and the Nucleus accumbens, the region that deals in pleasure reward all things dopamine-related. [2] It’s early days and so far the studies have only been done in mice. But if proved the implications for how we organise our societies are profound indeed.

Because up to now, the dominant political modality has been that tolerating enormous inequalities is worth it, because of the favourable outcomes it produces. Let the rich get as rich as they possibly can: if the rest exist in a hungry, stressed-out netherworld, that’s too bad- they’re still better off than they would have been otherwise. But if all society can do is turn out a race of stunted, damaged individuals, what quality of life is that? What’s more: a provable demonstrable pathway gives grounds for legal suits against the advocates and operators of such systems. Those who own right wing news channels, newspapers or fund “free market” think tanks will need to act quickly to suppress this research, discredit its authors and distract attention from it as quickly as possible. Where would they be if we solved poverty and global warming?

Warning: some of these links are a bit paywalled, and may require registering or other fiddly stuff


[2] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2353702-we-may-now-know-how-childhood-adversity-leaves-its-mark-on-the-brain/

[3] https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.07.28.454015v1

for a general read on the effects of inequality and poor health we recommend The Spirit Level byRichard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett Penguin 2009, which we’ll link to via Goodreads, to keep things fair and equal, as t’were


#mental health #environment #poverty #inequality #neurology #dopamine

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