Child poverty: one pathway to adult depression

Ruth Spence Middlesex UniversityAntonia Bifulco Middlesex UniversityResearch being conducted by Professor Antonia Bifulco and Research Fellow Ruth Spence in the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University has found a link between child poverty and depression – raising the stakes for the austerity-driven welfare cuts currently being made in the UK. 

The Child Poverty Act 2010 set out a commitment by the government to end child poverty in the UK by 2020. This was recently abolished amidst the release of figures that show child poverty is increasing in the UK. Data from the Department for Work and Pensions show that absolute child poverty now stands at 2.6 million and the New Policy Institute estimates that 17 per cent of children are living in poverty (this rises to 28 per cent after housing costs are taken into account).

Worryingly, poverty can have effects far greater than a lack of money – both social and psychological. The Family Stress Model suggests that when parents are unable to make ends meet and have to cut back on necessary expenses they are more likely to become more stressed and anxious. This can in turn disrupt family relationships and affect the ability to parent well as the whole family suffers stress. Indeed, research shows that living in poverty has many long-term consequences for children – for instance poorer health and lower educational attainment. Also, disadvantage can be passed down from one generation to the next, meaning children grow up missing out on life opportunities.

Tim Beckett - Creative Commons 2.0

Photo by Tim Beckett (Creative Commons 2.0)

Lasting consequences

One outcome that hasn’t been fully investigated is whether childhood material deprivation can lead to mental health problems later in life – in particular depression. This is one of the most common clinical disorders (about six per cent of people in the UK suffer from depression each year, with rates of 15 per cent in inner city women). As part of a programme of work being undertaken by us and our colleagues to explore the impact of childhood adversity across the lifespan, we looked at data collected from intensive interviews with 197 high-risk London women about deprivation and its relationship with depression in childhood and adulthood.

We did two analyses: the first looked at how childhood financial hardship related to adult financial hardship and depression. This showed children experiencing financial hardship were more likely to experience financial hardship as adults and develop depression in both childhood and adulthood. This association with later depression held regardless of whether or not they had been depressed during childhood.

As the Family Stress Model suggests that economic hardship influences parenting, the second looked at childhood experience of poor parenting (neglect and/or hostility by mother and/or father). This showed early financial hardship and having parents that used poor parenting techniques were very strongly associated. These also related to teenage depression. When we took into account childhood experience of poor parenting, childhood financial hardship no longer predicted adulthood depression or financial hardship. This means that it is the association between early financial hardship and poor parenting that is responsible for the relationship between childhood poverty and the adult outcomes (as we found in our first analysis).

There are a couple of important things to highlight about this research: firstly, the associations between childhood financial hardship, childhood experience of poorer parenting and early depression only show that when one is present the others are more likely to be present. This means there are plenty of parents who experience financial hardship but whose parenting practices are not affected. Secondly, this analysis was only conducted on women, so men may show different patterns.

Our research provides evidence that the family stress caused by current cuts to welfare may well have a negative impact on parenting practices, with long-term consequences for the wellbeing of children in deprived areas.

Feeling the strain

That said we believe our results support the Family Stress Model; that is, the strain caused by a lack of money and resources is associated with parents using poorer parenting techniques and early depression as evidenced in the early experience of the women we interviewed. Also, the association between financial hardship and poor parenting means that children who grow up in poor families are more likely to experience financial hardship in adulthood. Lastly, early experiences of financial hardship, poor parenting and early depression increase the likelihood of later depression.

So what does this mean in terms of the growing numbers of children experiencing poverty? We think our research provides evidence that the family stress caused by current cuts to welfare may well have a negative impact on parenting practices, with long-term consequences for the wellbeing of children in deprived areas. This could have serious implications for future mental health prevalence and resulting NHS spending, as it is likely to increase the number of people who are vulnerable to depression, not only in childhood but as adults. It also highlights that poverty can be a life-long condition with childhood poverty related to adult poverty, and suggesting that the disruption to relationships caused by poverty may hinder equality of opportunities.

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