Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Pressure on Kids

A child who lives in poverty is three times more likely to have a mental health problem. Seventy percent of adult mental illness begins in childhood which points to how many children are slipping through the cracks. Anxiety affects approximately six per cent of children and youth, making it the most common mental health problem among that age group. Twenty-two percent of children will be affected by anxiety in their lifetime.

The longer a family lives in poverty, the higher the chance of them having mental health disadvantages, according to the study, which also showed the neighbourhood where one lives can have an impact on a child’s mental health. According to the study, lower income neighbourhoods tend to have less access to health care which means parents can face more challenges getting help for their child.

“If mom comes home and freaks out every time she opens a bill, ‘I don’t know know how we’re going to pay this month’s rent,’ being exposed to that is going to increase the child’s anxiety...We’re seeing young children who are six, seven, eight-years old who are worried about getting into university,” said  Dr. Karen Francis, Clinical Director of Child and Youth Mental Health Ambulatory Services at Hamilton Health Sciences, adding that more complex cases of anxiety may be related to higher demands that are placed on kids today. “Even kids in kindergarten have more academic activity so it’s a lot of pressure.”

Poverty can cause a lot of challenges for a child. Parents in poverty tend to be out working most of the time, and they’re stressed by inconsistent income when they aren’t working. The social support network of parents tends to be smaller. Stress accumulates and indirectly passes down to the children. Children of poorly educated parents hear fewer words and tend to receive commands rather than questions. There are fewer books in poor households. Nutrition, hygene and sleep can also be negatively affected by poverty.

These environmental conditions can hinder an infant’s brain development. This is the finding of a new study called “Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth,” coauthored in part by Seth Pollak, Barbara Wolfe and Jamie Hanson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this, the researchers compared the brain development of children from low, middle and high-income families.

“You can see that these three groups of kids are starting kindergarten with differences in brain development,” said professor of psychology Seth Pollak. “And that’s probably going to influence how they’re able take advantage of resources being made available there.”

Gray matter is a type of brain tissue that includes most neural cell bodies and neuron connections, known as synapses. It is responsible for decision making, impulse control, memory, muscle function, sensory perception, speech and emotion. They found kids in poor households create gray matter more slowly than their rich and middle-income peers, even though they begin life with the same amount. It’s not clear which specific aspects of poverty cause this effect. It is hard to separate the variables. Life in poverty is generally less stimulating than the life of the middle and upper classes, and it’s more stressful. Brains are adaptive organs, processing complex and varied stimuli to adjust to their surroundings. They don’t function well if they aren’t given enough stimuli, and stress also tends to slow them down.

These findings tell us that poverty is not a genetic disease. One thing is clear: Poverty is a real problem facing children in the United States. A child is not responsible for the circumstances she is born into, circumstances that put her at a disadvantage, both economically and cognitively. Poverty is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

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