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Poor moms stressed, not mentally ill, study finds

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Your income barely covers your bills (to say nothing of hockey lessons or dance class), and your work hours are erratic. The neighbourhood's not the best, daycare is iffy and you barely have time to check the homework, let alone help with the science project.

Is it any wonder that poverty might be causing anxiety among low-income mothers?

A new U.S. study has found that poor mothers are more likely to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder – not because they suffer from a mental illness – but because they are struggling with the stress of being poor.

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In a paper published online in the journal of Child and Adolescent Social Work, researchers at Rutgers University found that the inaccurate diagnosis of a psychological disorder was actually capturing "a physical need in the real world that is unmet and produced anxiety."

It's an important distinction, says lead author Judith C. Baer, because it means that while stressed-out moms living in poverty may be helped by traditional therapy or parent education, a more effective approach would be financial aid and programs such as access to lower-cost, high-quality daycare that help them better support their families (and reduce the worry they feel for the kids' futures).

The Rutgers research analyzed data from a continuing family well-being study, conducted at Princeton University, which involves 4,898 participants and includes surveys and first-hand observations of family homes made when the children were three years old.

Poor moms have cause to worry: There is a long-term impact on children who grow up in poverty – a trend even more worrisome at a time when social inequality appears to be widening.

For instance, a British study published in June found that seven-year olds living in poor families performed, on average, 10 points lower on academic ability tests (on a scale from 0 to 100) than a child who had never been poor. And while middle-class parents have a role in those results, researchers suggested that the environment that money makes possible, such as the toys and technology in the house, are a significant factor. As one of the study's authors observed to the Guardian: "My children play on a tablet [computer], that's a pure income effect, nothing to do with me as parents. I'm not in the room."

Labelling moms with a mental disorder when circumstances are to blame is to no one's benefit. As Dr. Baer concluded in the Rutgers study: "Labelling an individual with a diagnosis, especially if it is inaccurate, has a serious social stigma."

It also masks the real reason low-income parents feel stress – and prevents society from investing in the kind of help their families need.

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What programs do you think would be most effective to assist low-income families?

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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