Pop culture depictions of mental illness tend to focus on the rich: Think a wealthy comedian played by Woody Allen paying hundreds of dollars per session to a fancy Freudian psychoanalyst, or Winona Ryder’s character in Girl, Interrupted, who is checked into a psychiatric hospital with the approval of her wealthy parents.
But the reality is that poor Americans are much more likely to face mental health problems than rich ones. This chart, put together by the Huffington Post’s Jonathan Cohn and Cameron Love using data from a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, shows that 8.7 percent of people living in poverty exhibited signs of “serious psychological distress” when polled from 2009 to 2013. But only 1.2 percent of people with incomes of four times the federal poverty level or higher did:
For reference, the poverty line for a family of four in 2015 is $24,250 a year (previous years’ lines differ because of inflation). So 200 percent of the line is $48,500 a year, and 400 percent is $97,000. It’s really good for your mental health to make six figures a year, it seems.
“Severe psychological distress” is defined as “mental health problems severe enough to cause moderate-to-serious impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning and to require treatment.” The CDC study measures it through what’s known as the Kessler 6 (K6) nonspecific distress scale. K6 asks respondents how frequently in the past 30 days respondents felt: 1) so sad that nothing could cheer them up, 2) nervous, 3) restless or fidgety, 4) hopeless, 5) that everything was an effort, and 6) worthless. Respondents who scored high on the K6 are judged to suffer from severe distress.
There are plenty of reasons poverty would lead to mental health problems. A growing body of research in child development suggests that “toxic stress” resulting from a childhood in poverty can have lifelong negative consequences. Unemployment, a frequent cause of poverty, is associated with increased rates of depression. And the reverse is true as well. Being depressed makes it harder to get or keep a job, contributing to poverty among the mentally ill.