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Does Neighborhood Income Affect Teens' Mental Health?

WEDNESDAY Oct. 10, 2012 -- Moving from an area with a high poverty level to an area with less poverty benefits the mental health of some teen girls, a new study contends.

Researchers looked at low-income families in public housing in five U.S. cities -- Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York -- between 1994 and 1997. The families were randomly selected to remain in public housing (high-poverty areas) or to receive government-funded rental subsidies to move into private apartments (low-poverty areas).

The study authors analyzed the mental health of more than 2,800 children, aged 12 to 19, in these families for between four and seven years.

"Extensive observational evidence indicates that youth in high-poverty neighborhoods exhibit poor mental health, although not all children may be affected similarly," according to background information in the study by Theresa Osypuk, of Northeastern University in Boston, and colleagues. "Racial/ethnic minority families are disproportionately more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods, and many research studies suggest that adolescents who reside in high-poverty communities experience higher levels of mental health problems."

The researchers found that girls without any health vulnerabilities at the start of the study were the only ones to benefit from moving to low-poverty areas. Health vulnerabilities refer to living in a household in which any member has a disability or a household in which a child has any of four health or development concerns, including behavioral or learning issues, difficulty getting to school or playing active games, or problems requiring special medicine or equipment.

Neither girls with health vulnerabilities nor boys without health vulnerabilities benefited from moving to a low-poverty area.

The study was published online Oct. 8 in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

"In conclusion, this housing policy experiment benefited the mental health of some adolescents, particularly girls in families without health vulnerabilities, but had either insignificant or harmful effects on the mental health of adolescents from families with preexisting health-related vulnerabilities, particularly boys," the authors wrote.

More information

The American Psychiatric Association has more about teens and mental health.

Posted: October 2012


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