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Is It generalized anxiety disorder or poverty? Poor mothers and their children

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Stressed mother (iStock)

The challenges of parenthood are only exacerbated for a family with limited financial resources. One common assumption about families living under conditions of poverty is that parents are more prone to psychiatric disorders; this may then negatively impact the development of children. However, researchers are calling into question such assumptions and whether these dynamics are even properly defined and understood. Indeed, rates of mental illness — in particular, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) — among this population may be exaggerated.

A 2012 study from Rutgers published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Social Work, “Is It Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Poverty? An Examination of Poor Mothers and Their Children,” analyzed data relating to a sample of 5,000 families from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. One key question is whether or not broader definitions under the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) have resulted in improper categorization of poor mothers as suffering from psychiatric conditions.

The study’s  findings include:

  • There was a positive correlation between poverty and generalized anxiety disorder. The conditions of poverty were associated with a higher likelihood of anxiety: “Mothers who had problems paying their utilities had a 2.44 [percentage point] odds of being in the General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) group.”
  • Another measure of the association between poverty and anxiety was that “the mothers who had to move in with others had a 1.90 [percentage point] odds of being in the GAD group.”
  • The increased likelihood of anxiety had negative impact on their parenting: “Maternal parenting stress was positively associated with punitive parenting by 21.7 percentage points.”
  • Another negative impact for children was that “parenting stress was positively associated with both children’s being withdrawn by 4.5 percentage points and anxious/depressed symptoms by 3.4 percentage points.”

The researchers conclude that their “findings suggest that anxiety in poor mothers is usually not psychiatric, but a reaction to severe environmental deficits.” The study ultimately shows 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. Nonetheless the picture is complicated as the path from stress to negative parenting was supported. This finding also has implications for practice. It suggests that in addition to concrete support, poor mothers may benefit from interventions designed to increase their capacity for coping with stress in addition to training in positive parenting skills.”

In related research, a 2011 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University found significant differences in brain development among low-income children as compared with their higher income peers.

Tags: parenting, mental health, children

    Writer: | Last updated: January 4, 2013

    Citation: Baer, Judith C.; Kim, MiSung; Wilkenfeld, Bonnie. "Is it Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Poverty? An Examination of Poor Mothers and Their Children," Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, August 2012, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 345-355. doi: 10.1007/s10560-012-0263-3.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related NPR story titled "Can Marriage Save Single Mothers from Poverty?"

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover family issues and related issues of poverty?

    Read the full study titled “Is It Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Poverty? An Examination of Poor Mothers and Their Children.”

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Read the press release that accompanied the study, "tk."

    1. If you had written an article based only on the press release, what would have been its main shortcoming(s)?

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?