A new study by researchers at Rutgers finds that poor mothers are more likely to be classified with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) because they live in poverty, not because they are suffering from a psychiatric disorder.
Judith C. Baer, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Social Work, and her team argue that although high levels of prolonged stress can lead to psychological problems, there is no evidence that generalized anxiety disorder in poor mothers is because of a psychiatric disorder.
The researchers note that their findings confirm earlier studies that the poorest mothers have the greatest odds of being classified as having generalized anxiety disorder.
But Baer and her team report, “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,” Baer said. “While supportive therapy and parent skills-training are often helpful, sometimes the most appropriate intervention is financial aid and concrete services.”
The latest research by Baer and colleagues analyzed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study conducted at Princeton University. The study consists of surveys and home observations of 4,898 participants when their children were 3 years old.
It 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.
Psychiatric diagnoses are based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), 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 continued.
“Thus, assessment should include careful attention to contextual factors and environmental deficits as playing a role in the presentation of symptoms. Labeling an individual with a diagnosis, especially if it is inaccurate, has a serious social stigma.”
The study, entitled “Is it Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Poverty? An Examination of Poor Mothers and Their Children,” is published online in Child and Adolescent Social Work.