New study links social exclusion and family poverty with poorer mental health in children

The work points to the importance of adopting structural policy regulations and dynamic psychosocial measures for children. The results link the risk of poverty and social exclusion with behavioural problems, aggression, anxiety or depression.Research team

The Joint Research Unit on Epidemiology, Environment and Health FISABIO-Universitat Jaume I-Universitat de València, which includes members of CIBEResp, has developed, within the framework of the INMA (INfancia y Medio Ambiente) programme, a study that assesses the consequences of the risk of poverty and social exclusion on children’s mental health.

The study analyses the role played by the family and social environment surrounding 395 and 382 children aged 7-11 in two areas with very different levels of wealth and investment policies in Gipuzkoa and Valencia, respectively. According to the research, a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion is directly related to an increase in mental health problems in children. Indirectly, this problem is also related to the physical and social context, family stress and parental profile.

Institutionally, the European Commission defines poverty as the state in which there are insufficient resources to live in dignity. Social exclusion, on the other hand, encompasses people who are not allowed to participate in society because of their characteristics. To measure these two parameters, the analysis has relied on the AROPE indicator (At Risk of Poverty or Social Exclusion), used since 2010 by the European Union.

By relating AROPE to the mental health and family context of the children under study, the results showed that the risk of poverty and social exclusion is related to more mental health problems, both internalising (such as anxiety, depression or somatic problems) and externalising (behavioural problems or aggression).

The relationship between the level of family poverty and social exclusion and internalising and externalising problems was shown to be determined by the level of parental stress. It was also affected by the parental profile, which includes concepts such as mothers’ and fathers’ perception of their role in the upbringing of their children.

Llúcia González, researcher at the Environment and Health Area of the Fisabio Foundation, explains that «knowing the extent and magnitude of problems such as the risk of poverty and social exclusion, the axis of transmission of these inequalities or the compensatory mechanisms that the family environment can provide, could contribute to improving the symptoms of internalising and externalising problems».

In this sense, the research points out that social systems close to children – such as the family, school or other social networks – can contribute to the development of protective mechanisms that compensate for the effect of unfavourable structural conditions in childhood.

Thus, this paper emphasises the importance of adopting policy and structural measures to protect children from poverty in order to improve children’s living conditions. Some of these would involve improving the job search service, avoiding the dual education system that segregates those who have more resources from those who do not, increasing the minimum inter-professional wage or eliminating energy poverty, among others.

However, according to González, also a member of CIBEResp and first author of the article, «these deep and structural changes may not be feasible in the short term, so in order to reduce mental health problems we can implement other indirect measures, including the application of positive parenting programmes».

In this type of programme, families are accompanied in their parenting journey. In this way, social support is provided, a space for dialogue is opened up and parental dynamics are recommended to improve parenting.