Attendees met in the Volunteer and Service-Learning Center where they shared experiences and ideas about poverty. Photo by Jonah Hokit

Mental illness and poverty have a close relationship


Organizers and attendees of the Real Talk session on poverty clarified the definition of poverty and discussed the various factors that cause poverty and how life circumstances affect how people perceive poverty.

A significant part of the discussion focused on the difference between generational and situational poverty, and some attendees shared personal stories about their experiences with each category.

The discussion group defined situational poverty as the type of poverty that results from an event. The events that cause people to fall into poverty are usually unexpected.

There are many life events that can result in situational poverty, according to the discussion group. Loss of a job, sudden medical expenses or even lengthy and costly treatments such as those for cancer can cause people to fall into poverty.

Greg Brooks, an anthropology sophomore, spoke about how, in part resulting from medical expenses within his family, his father chose to leave college and join the military to help provided financial security and insurance. Even after joining the military, the financial situation was tight because of the low entry-level enlisted pay, according to Brooks.

The group also talked about generational poverty, which is the type of poverty that people are born into and raised in. Group members considered how this type of poverty is often more difficult to escape because of a lack of support and those in it are unaware of other possibilities or life experiences.

April Cochran, a junior and prospective social work major, shared her experiences growing up in a low-income family. She described how from the perspective in her environment, college was something that rich people such as doctors and lawyers did, and higher education seemed out of reach.

In addition to the some of the circumstances presented at the event, many studies have produced evidence of the strong association between mental illness and poverty.

One study, of many that exist, showing that relationship was conducted by the McSilver Institute for Poverty and Research.

In the summary of that report, researchers described how the relationship between mental illness and poverty is a two-way street.

“There is a significant association between poverty and mental illness in the United States,” researchers wrote in the summary. “Research shows that this relationship is bidirectional: poverty may exacerbate mental illness and mental illness may lead to poverty.”

The report presents how those with mental illness have greater difficulty with health and health care costs as well as difficulty in productivity and ability to earn adequate income.

For those who are impoverished, “[h]eightened exposure to violence and other traumas in low-income communities furthers the cyclical nature of poverty, trauma and mental illness,” the summary stated referring to other research.

The Real Talk discussion group also talked about poverty specific to Utah County.

According to information presented by the organizers, 14 percent of the Utah County population is in poverty.

The United States Census Bureau estimated the Utah County population to be 592,299 people in 2016. 14 percent of the 2016 population would have been just over 82,921 people.

Support also became an important theme of the conversation. Group members talked about a possible obligation to help those in poverty. Along that topic, attendees spoke about having a sense of community, participating in service and using resources to help address the issue of poverty in Utah communities.