If you've ever had to worry about where your next paycheck would come from, you know how anxiety-inducing and depressing it can be to feel like you don't have enough to survive on.
Though depression is a complicated condition and there's often not one single cause for it, there are definitely plenty of factors that can contribute to someone experiencing depression — including poverty. And, in recent years, more research has pointed to the idea that poverty is one of the things that can be linked to mental health problems, specifically depression.
A 2012 survey from Gallup found higher rates of depression amongst Americans who lived in poverty (31% of those living in poverty also experienced depression versus 16% of people not in poverty who also had depression). While the researchers conducting the poll said that they weren't able to determine exactly why the rate of depression doubled for the poor, the data suggests that there's some link between a person's financial situation and their state of mind.
And in 2016, a study from Duke University researchers suggested that low socioeconomic status might even change a person's DNA and increase their chances of becoming depressed. The researchers found that teens from low economic backgrounds experienced changes to a gene that increases activity in a part of the brain that's involved in fight-or-flight responses — and that increased activity is linked to a higher risk of depression.
To be clear, people aren't suffering because money necessarily brings happiness, but it can bring stability, which in turn can lead to higher levels of contentment. In a 2016 study from Princeton University, researchers conducted a trial where they gave cash grants (around $700) to families in Kenya, and found that these families experienced higher levels of satisfaction and lower levels of depression than before they had the money.
And although financial situations are just one of many potential causes of depression, it's not hard to imagine why not having enough, or even just having to worry about your next paycheck can seriously affect your mental health.
Debra Kissen, PhD, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says that because stress is associated with situations where your survival or safety feels at risk, not having enough to survive on is definitely something that would trigger a stressful response in your body. And feeling stressed over a consistent period of time can be overwhelming and increase your risk for depression.
"When you have that chronic stress response, where every day you’re dealing with this situation, trying to move past it, [the stress] moves to being hurtful for the brain and the body," she says.
Even if you aren't living in poverty, you can still feel the effects financial strain can have on your mental health. If you're less than well-off, you might also be working long hours to make as much as you can, and focusing all your energy on work, leaving no time for things you'd do for fun. And that would make an impact on anyone's mental health. Additionally, being unemployed or losing a job and not knowing what's next can be brutal, too.
"If one’s identity is very tied to career success and financial success, it becomes, If I’m not this person [who's working], then who am I?" Dr. Kissen says.
Despite how much cash you have in your pocket, being depressed and financially strapped can feel like a discouraging cycle, where a person's circumstances are hampering their mental health, but they don't have access to therapy, which unfortunately can be expensive.
There's no replacement for therapy, and no easy fix for a mental health problem, but Dr. Kissen says that there are still plenty of ways to take care of yourself when you can't go to a mental health professional, like making sure you exercise and make connections with other people, or going to local group therapy sessions, which can often be a more affordable alternative.
"Anytime you're doing anything beyond yourself, you’re getting a more broadened perspective beyond what’s making your own life difficult," she says.
And while that won't fix everything, it's a start.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.