Mind Matters: The Impact of Poverty on Mental Health


By Julie Stutterheim

Lack of clean water, nutritious food and the means to escape the clutches of poverty – poor children and youth have so much to overcome. Yet, one of their most daunting obstacles can also be the least recognizable: mental health.

In Barranquilla, Colombia, sponsored youth Maryeris experienced severe depression when her father left the family and her mother became unemployed. Maryeris felt like she lost her way. She became so hopeless that she only saw one way out – suicide. She took a handful of pills, including sleeping tablets and over-the-counter flu medicine. Luckily, her mother found her before it was too late. Fearing for her daughter's life, she took Maryeris to a public health facility where she was stabilized and detoxified overnight.

Shortly after that terrible night, Maryeris went to the CI community center, where the agency doctor referred Maryeris to a psychologist. Through agency programs and therapy, Maryeris found her way back. She became a volunteer at the community center and now works with her mother, feeling hopeful about her future and looking forward to possibly earning a degree in psychology. Read the full story here.

Connecting families with much-needed services

Maryeris’ situation is more common than you might imagine. Children International’s agency in Jalisco, Mexico, reports that mental health and psychology services are a critical need in that community. Current partnerships in two of their community centers, however, help by providing low-cost consultation services for commonly-reported issues, such as depression, self-cutting and domestic violence. Each center sees about 15-20 cases on a monthly basis, and they provide referrals for individual and family therapy, as well as for those who have suffered sexual abuse. Beyond Colombia and Mexico, at its agencies worldwide, CI addresses these and a variety of other child-protection issues through curative and preventive approaches.

Isabella*, another sponsored youth in Barranquilla, would have done anything to escape her painful memories of being raped by her uncle when she was 4 years old. The brutal act haunted her every day.

Ashamed and angry, Isabella* turned to drugs when she was 11 in a desperate attempt to forget the trauma. After threatening to hurt herself and others, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Only 15 years old, Isabella* had hit rock bottom.

Once she left the hospital, she found strength in returning to CI’s community center and ultimately joined the Youth Health Corps (YHC) as a peer educator. Now she counsels other at-risk youth, sharing her life experiences and what she has learned.

Recognizing a larger issue that affects hundreds of millions

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates about 450 million people worldwide suffer from a mental health disorder, and about three-fourths of that population live in developing countries with little or no access to treatment. Government and nonprofit organizations tend to tackle more concrete issues, and individuals who suffer from mental health disorders often do so alone – shamed or stigmatized by their communities, and possibly even their families. According to the United Nations, about 85 to 90 percent of adolescents who experience a mental health issue live in low-income countries. Yet, impoverished children and youth often do not have the same psychological treatment available in more developed countries.

To complicate matters, health emergencies or natural disasters, such as last year’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, can cause lasting trauma and stress for poor children and communities. According to WHO, mental disorders can double after emergencies. Unfortunately, during an emergency, many relief efforts cannot typically prioritize mental health.

Typhoon Haiyan devastated millions, leaving many homeless

Following Typhoon Haiyan, CI helped fill this void for sponsored families by providing food, shelter and child-friendly spaces, which are safe, established locations for children to learn, play and continue their education during rebuilding efforts. Providing places where children feel safe is critical to their mental health after such tragedies. Our organization also worked with partner institutions to bring clean water and material aid. Later, long after the emergency relief aid has dried up in countries where we work, our community centers and support staff remain to continue offering support and as a reminder to communities that CI is here to stay.

Youth programs help to promote mental health and build confidence

Aligning with global efforts to promote mental health

WHO’s approach to promoting mental health includes strengthening communities, creating supportive environments, developing personal and life skills, providing early childhood development and health services, and empowering women.

CI follows a similar approach in developing many of its programs, which align with promoting mental health and rely on the community center as a centralized, stable resource for children and their families. Programs like Into Employment, for example, offer youth a way out of poverty by providing career opportunities and developing life and technical skills. Similarly, early childhood development and education programs give young children in poverty a better chance for the future.

And at the core of CI sponsorship are the letters from sponsors to children – encouraging, caring words that help build self-esteem. It’s an effort that has far-reaching effects, as countless program graduates remember the words of encouragement and hope provided by sponsors as the turning point in their lives.

*Names have been changed in accordance with the Child Protection Policy.

This month, the United Nations celebrates International Youth Day on August 12. In honor of this year’s theme of Youth and Mental Health, many of CI’s worldwide agencies will be hosting celebrations to raise awareness of this cause. Activities include interactive workshops on dealing with stress and defining issues related to mental health among youth, hosting guest speakers such as counselors and clinical psychologists, identifying coping methods and treatments, and educating on the social stigma of mental health. In the Philippines, youth will be participating in essay, slogan and extemporaneous speech competitions about the topic. Presentations are also scheduled on women and child protection issues and rights. In Ecuador, planned events include a theater debate which will address the topic from many perspectives – rational, emotional, personal, collective, active, historical, cultural, ethical and creative. In Guatemala, our agency will be hosting a parade to promote human rights and nonviolence, and the youth will be marching in the parade wearing stilts and handmade hats and masks. Other fun events include talent shows, sports competitions and painting murals.

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