How Depression Affects the Poor

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By Aisha Pandor

“It’s called the silent killer and, alarmingly, it’s on the rise among domestic workers. Depression, says a report by SweepSouth, is becoming more common in domestic workers.

Each year we do a survey of the pay and working conditions for domestic workers, and our last report found that domestic workers felt their lives had significantly been affected by stressors brought on by the pandemic’s economic fallout, with unemployment and spiralling debt topping the list.

The report contained sobering statistics, such as that 65% of the women we polled in Nigeria are the main breadwinners in the house, 48% are single parents, and on average, support four dependants. With such hard-hitting findings — and considering the fact that domestic workers are excluded from the National Minimum Wage Act — it’s easy to see why so many are feeling overwhelmed.

While mental illness exists at all levels of society, it’s undoubtedly more closely associated with poverty, with global studies about how living near or below the poverty line increases the risk of significant mental health problems.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US have found that 8.7% of people who have incomes below the poverty level report significant psychological distress. And research published in Science mag has shown that those with the lowest incomes in society are typically 1.5 to 3 times more likely than the rich to experience depression or anxiety.

While anti-poverty interventions to better low-income earners’ lives are needed worldwide, addressing their current mindset should be a priority too. Quality mental healthcare has historically been difficult for the poor to receive, and the increase in disease burden over the last two years will mean that even fewer people will be able to obtain the mental health services they need. The treatment typically given to sufferers of depression among wealthier socioeconomic levels is completely out of reach for hundreds of thousands of people who need it.

Many of the studies examining the role that poverty plays in mental illness come to the same conclusion: Depression significantly affects people in poverty. Not addressing mental health issues and the subsequent long-term effects among low-income earners is akin to seeing a smoking ember in dry grass and hoping it won’t start a fire.

Living below the poverty line and experiencing mental health problems creates serious challenges. Experts have found that mental disorders — largely, the common illnesses of depression and anxiety — are the single largest cause of disability worldwide, giving rise to one-seventh of all the disabilities globally.

Depression is known to debilitate sufferers, cause poor overall health, and directly affect the way people think and respond. It also often has a significant impact on relationships with family and friends, particularly when those affected are caregivers with many responsibilities. It’s little wonder, then, that it’s called the greatest thief of productive life.

Research examining the causal relationship between poverty and common mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries suggests that initiatives which promote security, education, social, welfare and health safety nets are more likely to protect the mental health of populations, playing a vital role in getting those in poverty on track to a better life.

Given the disastrous effect the pandemic has had on the poor, who already inhabit a world of worry and financial uncertainty, finding solutions has become even more pressing.

If you take into consideration the associated economic benefits of improved mental health, urgent interventions should be a part of any society’s anti-poverty toolkit to prevent those most economically vulnerable from simply becoming yet another statistic in the post-pandemic graveyard of economic woes.”

Aisha Pandor is the CEO of SweepSouth

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