The Mental Health Epidemic Within Poor America: Why Alternative Medicine May Be An Answer

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Today it seems as if everyone suffers from depression and anxiety, and this statement isn’t necessarily wrong. Depression is one of the leading mental illnesses within the United States and this is for many reasons. The United States suffers from social inequality with little mobility, and labels mental illness as a weakness creating a stigma where many feel insecure to admit they need help. Along with stigmas and social inequality, medical insurance also plays a large role in what actions citizens can consider if they do decide they need help. Often being led to pricey therapy sessions and overpriced medication, a possible solution could be looking at alternative medicine instead, specifically yoga.

In the United States, the federal poverty line, which is an absolute measure of income, is frequently used to determine who is poor. Within the United States 30% of the population falls within the lower-middle class, also known as “blue-collar” workers. 13% make up working poor, these are people who work seasonal jobs, manual labor, and service jobs. While 12% of the population falls within the underclass, these are part time employees or are unemployed. Yet the majority of the people who fall under the poverty line in the U.S. are not unemployed. Poverty is a big issue within the united states because of social stratification and social inequality. This puts lots of pressure on those who are struggling to provide for one’s family and is possibly a large factor for the large number of people who suffer from depression and anxiety.

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Researcher and mental health scientist, Robert Sapolsky conducted a study in his early twenties where he spent weeks with baboons to study the psychological effects of stress. In his experiment he would use tranquilizer darts and then take a blood test to measure cortisol, which is a hormone that baboons and humans release when they are stressed. Within the baboon tribe, there is a hierarchy between the men, in which each male knows where he stands, and this determines their way of life such as who they have sex with, what they eat, where they sit, etc. Sapolsky found that the baboons were the most stressed when they felt insecure, or when they felt as if they were at the bottom of the hierarchy. During these times of stress the baboons would perform a submission gesture as if to say “I can’t cope with this” or “I retreat”. Much like baboons we humans also tend to perform a submissive gesture in the hopes that the stress and anxiety will go away. By performing this gesture it is hoped that the factors causing the stress will also dissipate.

It was found by researchers Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson that “as inequality grows, depression and anxiety grow.” The United States possesses some of the highest rates of inequality since the 1920s. The social class system in which we follow allows for very few people at the top 1%, an uncertain middle, and a large bottom. This type of structure within our society puts lots of pressure and insecurity on those regarding their socioeconomic status. In a survey done by the department of health and human services, it was found that “nearly 90% of persons with severe depressive symptoms reported difficulty with work, home, or social activities related to their symptoms. (Pratt)”

Although a majority of people suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, there is a stigma that surrounds and prevents conversation about these topics. In 2019, this seems to be less of a problem for younger generations, due to the large amount of activist who are eagerly trying to diminish this stigma, while in older generations this push to talk about their mental state is still looked down upon. It was found by researchers Loni Crumb, Taryne Mingo, and Allison Crowe, who performed a qualitative analysis approach to mental health stigma in low-income rural areas, that many felt fear and shame around their mental illness. This stigma “refers to the labeling and devaluing of a person based on negative beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions about mental health issues that results in status loss, discrimination, or stereotyping (Liegghio, 2017, Stewrt et al., 2015) These stigmas are often internalized and create barriers, “influence a person’s self perception, their education attainment, employment, and social and family relationships (Crumb).”

Men tend to face an even higher stigma being that men are taught from a young age to suppress their emotions because crying, admitting defeat, or seeking for help may be seen as inmasculine or weak, resulting in gender stereotyping. This inability to ask for help results in the failure to seek professional help for those who may be deemed necessary and to ignore mental health concerns.

While some may reach out and seek professional help, economic status comes back to play a role in whether seeking help is an option. Depending on the therapists, a session can cost up to $250 per hour, but with high-quality medical insurance a session may be between $20-$50. Without insurance these prices can range anywhere from $50 to $250+. According to the Census Bureau in 2018 about 27.5 million people, 8.5% of the population, lacked medical insurance. This means that many people either go without medical insurance, may use their life savings, or some may even take out a second mortgage on their home to afford the expensive costs that come with seeking medical care. Group therapy may be a cheaper alternative costing anywhere from $30-$80 per session, but if one chooses to attend weekly for 3 months the costs still range anywhere from $360-$960. This financial requirement places a huge burden on those who may not be able to fork out this kind of money on a regular basis.

A possible solution to this large population epidemic could be the implications of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). This is the term for products and practices that are not part of the standard medical care. This “standard care” refers to what medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, and allied health professionals, such as nurses and physical therapists, practice. Complementary medicine is used along with standard medical care. An example of this would be using acupuncture to help with the side effects of cancer treatment. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is used in place of standard medicine. Many CAM systems share an emphasis on “looking for patterns of dysfunction that manifest throughout the individual rather than isolated problems in separate bodily subsystems (Bhikha).” This means that a CAM practitioner may ask questions that a traditional practitioners may not ask. Such as the patient’s emotional state and spiritual values.

One practice that may serve as a great alternative is yoga. “Yoga was developed up to 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual (Yoga Alliance).” It is often accompanied with Hatha Yoga which includes postures and breathing techniques. While there are many different types of yoga and each can vary in their practices, all practices are intended to promote some aspect of well being. The two things that will be focused on while discussing yoga’s effects on depression and anxiety are mindfulness and exercise.

Yoga promotes the idea of mindfulness, which is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. This mental state is achieved by focusing on one’s awareness of the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. This mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, but the technique of prayer or meditation is where it is more often seen. When associated with anxiety or depression, this mindfulness allows for those who practice to focus on the here and now, these people are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets of the past. This allows these people to be less preoccupied with self-esteem issues and allows for deep connections with others to form.

The exercise aspect plays a large roll in not only the mental well being of the participant but also the physical. Exercise has been known to reduce stress due to the release endorphins that interact with the receptors of one’s brain. These endorphins are what activate a positive mood that usually follows after engaging in physical activity. While doing research on mice, scientists found that regular exercise triggers the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, thus allowing the brain to receive a larger blood supply. This exercise also allows for the development of new and stronger neurons within the hippocampus. Meaning that exercise helps retain cognitive ability and helps with coping with depression, anxiety, and stress.

After finalizing my research I have concluded that there is a clear and direct correlation between financial instability and unwell mental and physical health. This is due to a few contributing factors such as the lack of structure within government assisted insurance programs, the social class system within the United States, and the stigma and inability for some to speak about such issues. I have researched methods in which underfunded and impoverished communities can access alternative medicine through means such as yoga.     


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