. . . the right care at the right time

Poverty pounds metro school kids

By Kevin Sendi, Executive Director, New Oakland

We were meeting with a prominent Oakland County school superintendent recently when he dropped a bombshell, saying, “25% of school kids in Oakland County live below the poverty line. “We sat in momentary stunned silence, thinking, “Can that really be?”

The national poverty level is $22,000 for a family of 4, or $17,000 for a family of 3 if led by a single parent. Obviously, even the richest counties in America can’t escape the growing separation between rich and poor and the changing nature of middle class employment.

Unemployment significantly increases the odds of psychiatric disorders, creating an inverse relationship between mental illness and social class. That’s why New Oakland has been compelled to expand our relationship with metro area school systems that have been increasingly overwhelmed by the many mental health issues that are exacerbated by poverty.

Mental health and economic status have always been intrinsically associated. Research shows that the neural systems of poor children develop differently from those of middle-class children, affecting language development and “executive function,” or the ability to plan, remember details and pay attention in school. Add to that poor diet, living conditions, the stress of unemployment on parents and household mood, and it becomes a toxic, deteriorating world for the children involved.

A recent article in USA Today quoted Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.  “It’s really important for neuroscientists to start to think about the effects of people’s experiences on their brain function,” says Farah, “and specifically about the effect of people’s socioeconomic status.”

When parents suffer, the kids become the collateral damage of their parents’ profound difficulties. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys says that unemployment significantly increases the prevalence of psychiatric disorders, nearly quadrupling the odds of drug dependence and tripling the odds of phobia and functional psychosis. It more than doubles the odds of depressive episodes, anxiety and obsessive–compulsive disorders.

Fortunately, there is some hope for the kids. Poverty induced deficiencies are reversible through intensive intervention such as focused lessons and games that encourage children to think out loud or use executive function. Susan Neuman, an education professor at the University of Michigan, says “Though the effects of poverty are reversible, children need incredibly intensive interventions to overcome this kind of difficulty.”

We know that. New Oakland immerses itself in it every day. It’s incredibly challenging and troubling to deal with kids who lack nutrition and in some cases, heat and running water. Teachers and guidance counselors can only do so much. Through our work with schools, we intervene in crisis situations and counsel, treat and otherwise care for hundreds of children each day in our FACE to FACE non-hospital partial day program.

There are many school systems we haven’t yet reached, but we won’t stop expanding our staff of therapists and psychiatrists as long as the demand exists – as long as our children are suffering the personal, social and psychological devastations of poverty.