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Breaking the Link Between Mental Health and Poverty

Mental health demands simple ingredients to flourish. Just like a plant needs sunlight, water and fertilizer, the brain needs sleep, nutrition, exercise, social connectedness and personal balance to protect against depression. A person might have a genetic predisposition for depression, but plant that person in positive soil, and the outcomes dramatically improve.

For those in poverty, not only is access to basic mental health needs elusive, trauma slams against even the most centered person like a wrecking ball. When ringing gunshots, sexual abuse, food deserts and uncertainty about where one might stay the night form the staple diet of someone impoverished, it’s not surprising serious mental illness is more than twice as likely for those living below the poverty line (7.1 percent versus 3.1 percent, according to a 2016 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

Fortunately, early intervention and a personal touch can squelch depression before it has a chance to take root. That is why it is worth understanding what Paul Quinn College in Dallas is doing to defy the link between poverty and depression. The historically black college is drawing upon the strength of a community and taking a proactive approach.

Michael Sorrell, Paul Quinn’s president, initiated a program with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center to provide a mental health screen for all incoming students. Approximately 40 percent come from poverty-stricken areas in Chicago, Oakland, Detroit and Dallas. Sorrell noticed the staggering number of students coming from schools where classmates were shot and the effect this trauma has on their behavior.

He felt that if he surrounded these students with love and professional support, they would avoid the illness that often results from trauma trapped in silence. Rather than waiting for problems to erupt, Sorrell reached out to UT Southwestern for help. If every student had access to mental health resources as standard care, then care for mental fitness might be seen as something that requires routine, practical attention, as opposed to something to be feared.

Paul Quinn built information about mental illness, access to treatment, crisis assistance and the clinic into the freshman orientation, various panels and town hall meetings. During the latter, Sorrell and a student leader openly discuss their experience with mental illness, prompting students to share their own experiences.

UT Southwestern weekly provides a senior psychiatric resident, a nurse and a supervisor at an onsite clinic. Each freshman receives a mental health screen. Dr. Stacia Alexander, the clinic’s coordinator, feels the screening is critical for eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness. “If students equate mental health to physical health,” she emphasizes, “they are more likely to seek help.”

When Alexander asks a student if trauma has occurred, students uniformly answer “No.” Then she probes deeper: “Have you ever seen someone shot? Raped? Witnessed domestic violence?” “Yes” is a frequent answer. Students don’t see their experience as trauma unless someone helps define trauma.

She finds the biggest obstacle to students pursuing help is disbelief. Counseling is seen as something for rich people, not for someone in their economic state. Others believe that if faith is strong enough, counseling shouldn’t be needed.

Alexander and her colleagues work hard to dispel these myths. Her office door is open whenever she’s not in session with a student. The comfortable blue couches in her office beckon students to sit down and discuss issues one-on-one. Once the students are feeling better, she encourages them to write a letter to themselves, explaining how different their lives are with the changes they’ve made. Medication and counseling are seen as tools for regaining and maintaining mental health in addition to faith, not in place of it. Mental health becomes seen as something deserved by all income levels, not just the rich.

The hope is that if students obtain better mental health, grade-point averages and graduation rates may improve, not to mention lives may be saved. Considering that the National Institutes of Health reports suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, prevention has a high reward.

This model is worth universities studying closely, especially if they serve students whose lives have been upended by poverty. The resilience learned by overcoming poverty at a young age through education and opportunity reinforces the idea that poverty is not a permanent condition.

As students gain the confidence to adapt to surroundings, to innovate and create change, their success will be repeatable. That’s an investment in human capital that can push back the boundaries of poverty and allow students to tap into their potential.

Julie Hersh is president of the Hersh Foundation and author of “Struck by Living.” This essay appeared originally in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.” This is distributed by InsideSources.com.

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