Studies show as family income decreases, child’s risk of disorder increases
By Gwendolyn Richards, Postmedia News October 8, 2011
Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre, in a room used for treating children, says those who are vulnerable financially are also vulnerable to mental illness.
As school started for another year last fall and students readjusted to busy schedules, Mary had more to worry about than getting her teenage daughter out the door in time for the day’s first class.
Physically beaten – and beaten down – at the hands of her suicidal daughter, who was then 14, Mary had her daughter hospitalized.
For the next two weeks, doctors were able to work with Lori and make recommendations to Mary, giving the mom access to much more help than she had when her daughter was at home.
Lori (not her real name) was Mary’s fourth child, so she knew something was amiss from the start. Her baby daughter slept with her eyes open, would be caught sleepwalking and – when she headed to preschool at the age of three – teachers reported she was hitting.
The child was angry and stressed. But not even Mary’s now ex-husband believed anything was wrong.
Alone, Mary pursued help, looking for a diagnosis that took five years to secure: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder, plus depression and anxiety issues.
“If she had been my first child, maybe I would have just ignored it. But I started to see behaviours that didn’t seem normal,” Lori says. “I just kept fighting; the only thing that mattered to me was helping my kid.”
The family was emerging from bankruptcy when Lori was born, so money was, in Mary’s words, “tight from the get-go.” Today, Mary depends on Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) – Alberta’s income support program – after having to stop working more than a year ago. Helping her youngest daughter is close to a full-time job in itself.
Leading up to the moment when Lori was hospitalized and in the year since, Mary – who asked her surname be withheld – has spent her time seeking help, making appointments, pushing doctors for a diagnosis and sitting on waiting lists. It has been a long fight and one she believes would have been easier if she hadn’t been struggling financially to make ends meet.
“It’s a constant battle to find help that’s affordable and practical,” she says.
“We couldn’t have paid for private counselling. We didn’t have the resources to access the help for our children to even get a diagnosis of what was wrong. If I had the money and could afford to pay the $250 an hour … then I could have immediately gone somewhere private, got testing right away, paid for private counselling. It doesn’t mean her problems would be any less, [but] it maybe would have been quicker; we would have known sooner what was wrong.”
But that may not be entirely true, says Calgary Counselling Centre CEO Robbie Babins-Wagner.
“The earlier they seek services, the easier and faster it is to treat,” she says. It also means fewer problems down the road, adds the centre’s group counselling coordinator, Kim Busch.
“If it carries on, it can just compound and become more of a problem.”
Money is a charged issue when it comes to children with mental health problems. The reality is that children from disadvantaged or lower-income families have a higher proportion of mental illness than those from wealthier families.
One study that used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth – which looks at Canadian children from birth to aged 11 – shows that as family income decreases, the rates of a child having one or more psychiatric disorders increases.
Nearly one-third of children aged four to 11 from “very disadvantaged” families (those with income below 75 per cent of the low income cut-off) identified
having at least one behavioural or emotional disorder, according to the study.
In addition, “the odds of a child or youth from a family living in poverty having a mental health problem are three times that of a child from a family
that is not living in poverty,” says a report from the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health.
“People know and the research is really clear, people who are vulnerable financially are more vulnerable to having more mental-health related issues,” says Babins-Wagner.
Whether families are under the poverty line or well above it, children’s mental health problems are found across the income spectrum.
“The result is still the same, whatever the causal factor is. Every income bracket deals with the same type of issues: depression and anxiety,” says Busch.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Sarah Butson has had a practice since 1983, seeing hundreds of kids – some as young as three or four – from a variety of economic backgrounds, including those living on first nations. Some pay privately for her service, others are covered by third-party insurance or receive subsidies. She says there is no one-to-one correlation between income and mental health.
‘LIFE IS WAY TOO FAST’
It’s in the nuances where socio-economic factors may play a role – the incidents and experiences that can contribute to depression and anxiety.
A child from a reserve or an impoverished urban neighbourhood may be more likely to witness a traumatic assault than one living in a more affluent suburban setting.
“If a parent is struggling financially and working non-regular hours or two jobs, [they] may not be as accessible to the kids who, in turn, may be more
vulnerable,” Babins-Wagner says. “It’s a lack of support because of parental time and pressures on it.”
Alternatively, a child from a higher socio-economic status family may have highly stressed parents who are seldom available for slow time, like watching
TV, baking cookies or wrestling in the family room, says Butson. At the Calgary Counselling Centre, they’re seeing more teens and children experiencing
anxiety as expectations on today’s youth increase.
“It’s not just go to high school, it’s get certain grades to ensure acceptance at a good university; it’s social pressures, how many friends do you have
on Facebook and do you fit in,” says Busch.
“Life is way too fast now. It’s hard for kids to be just kids.”
And that has nothing to do with money. Once you account for all the variables, the bottom line is children experience stress, distress and mental health
issues for a variety of reasons.
It really just depends on the child, says Butson.
“There’s no one predicting factor.” Meanwhile, a year after the hospitalization, Lori has come a long way.
She attends counselling and gets some support at school. She is continuing to learn behaviours that Mary hopes will become habits.
And Mary is still fighting. “I want her someday to be a successful adult,” she says.