July 12, 2019

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Growing up in poverty impacts one’s emotions as an adult

David Bethuram

I met Marilyn about eight years ago. She went through years of therapy to handle what she called the “dark cloud over her head.”

Marilyn grew up in poverty, in a family of nine children in a rural part of Indiana. She and her family lived on a sustenance farm with animals and a very large garden. She said she had no memories of being hungry but, looking back on it, she remembers their diets were very restricted and simple.

She and her siblings did not bring lunch to school—either they skipped it completely or ate a piece of fruit. Other times, they ate a peanut butter sandwich with thick government commodity peanut butter. When Marilyn began school, she noticed for the first time that other children did not live like her and her family. They had clothing, food and matching socks!

Marilyn said it was difficult to remember when the mental illness started. Her earliest memories involved severe neglect and abuse by her mother. She turned to the animals for comfort and companionship. She believes she had depression even as a small child. She was always in slow motion.

At school, she preferred to be alone. Getting off the school bus in the afternoon simply brought dread. The long walk up the driveway seemed like miles. She was afraid to go home. What would be in store? A brutal beating with a sexual overtone, or peeling potatoes for 11 and doing farm chores? Either way, she was vulnerable during that time. She would get a slap, kick or knock daily.

She had older brothers who enjoyed beating her up and molesting her.

If a child grows up in a crowded home in a low-quality structure with a lot of noise, like Marilyn, they are much more likely to suffer mental and cognitive developmental debilitation than a child who grows up without those environmental conditions. Add in social risk factors like exposure to violence, household turmoil and separation from a parent, and that child’s development is seriously impacted.

These risk factors are the reality for children growing up in poverty.

Professor Gary Evans is an environmental and developmental psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and has spent the past two decades studying child development in low socioeconomic communities.

Evans has followed children who grew up at or below the poverty line, as well as children who grew up at two or four times the poverty line (the income levels that the majority of Americans currently occupy). He and his research team found that the adults who were children of poverty had more difficulty in regulating their emotions. This may have been due to their early exposure to stress.

Marilyn moved out two days after her high school graduation. She attended college and wanted to prove she could create a different path for herself. She thought that when she was a grown-up she’d have power, and when she had children she could protect them and keep them safe from unhappiness. But she found it more and more difficult to do this alone.

With the ongoing support of Catholic Charities mental health services the past few years, Marilyn has been able to work on her depression while maintaining a full‑time job and caring for her three children. She is determined to have a different life for her and her children, but she had to surrender to the fact that her past was having an impact on her present and future.

For more information on Catholic Charities mental health services, please visit our website at www.archindy.org/cc.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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