Poverty Causes Mental Illness and Behavioral Problems, North Carolina Study Shows

(November 27, 2003) An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in October indicates that poverty causes mental illness and behavioral problems in children with removal from poverty improving their mental health.

Since 1993, Jane Costello of the Duke University Medical School and her co-workersstudied the mental health of 1400 children in rural North Carolina. Halfway through the project, a gambling casino opened on the reservation where some of the children lived, and the casino began distributing its profits to members of the tribe. Before the casino payments began, children in poor families had many more behavioral problems than children in families that were out of poverty, including delinquency, violence, disobedience and truancy. The payments—approximately $6,000 per family—were enough to move some families out of poverty, and in those families children’s mental health problems declined to levels of never-poor families. A similar improvement was noted in non-Indian children whose families moved out of poverty during the period.

This study is evidence that poverty causes mental illness and behavioral problems. An alternative theory is that mental illness causes poverty. This latter, while true for some, can be used as a justification for inaction to reduce poverty. “Nothing we can do will help–they’re crazy.”

E. Jane Costello, Scott N. Compton, Gordon Keeler, and Adrian Angold. “Relationships Between Poverty and Psychopathology: A Natural Experiment.” JAMA. 2003; 290:2003-2029. Abstract

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