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23 July 2012
Poverty, not mental illness, creating anxiety disorders

A controversial new study from Rutgers University suggests that anxiety disorders in poor mothers are often not a psychiatric problem, but a reaction to "severe environmental deficits." The study, "Is it Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Poverty? An Examination of Poor Mothers and Their Children," has been published in the journal Child and Adolescent Social Work. It argues that although high levels of stress over long periods can lead to psychological problems, there is no evidence that generalized anxiety disorder in poor mothers is because of an "internal malfunction."

The new research, by Judith C. Baer, confirms earlier findings that the poorest mothers have the greater odds of being classified as having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). But Baer says "...there is no evidence for a malfunction of some internal mechanism. Rather, there is a physical need in the real world that is unmet and produces anxiety. "The distinction is important because there are different ways to treat the problem... sometimes the most appropriate intervention is financial aid and concrete services."

Baer's team has been exploring relationships between poor mothers and their children and whether links between poverty and maternal anxiety might play a part in their offspring developing anxiety of their own. The researchers confirmed that the poorest mothers had greater odds of being classified as having GAD, but that the path from anxiety to parenting stress was not supported. "This suggests that mothers can be poor and anxious, but still provide positive parenting for their children," Baer said.

Baer and her co-researchers argue that changing and broadening definitions for generalized anxiety disorder have caused, in some cases, mental health experts to categorize the reactions of these mothers to the extreme conditions they face daily as symptoms of the anxiety disorder.

Currently, psychiatric diagnoses are based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which uses symptom-based criteria to determine disorders. Recent versions do not consider context, such as poverty conditions, in determining diagnoses, Baer said. "Our findings suggest that anxiety in poor mothers is usually not a psychiatric problem but a reaction to severe environmental deficits," she explained. "Thus, assessment should include careful attention to contextual factors and environmental deficits as playing a role in the presentation of symptoms."

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Source: Rutgers University

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