SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- While education and job training are most often offered in programs to help move aid recipients from welfare to work, a Penn State study suggests that mental health services, too, may be needed to lower the barriers to self sufficiency.
In one of the first studies of welfare mothers' mental health to include a nationally representative sample, the Penn State team found that single mothers on welfare are more likely to have a psychiatric disorder than similarly low-income, non-welfare mothers.
Dawn Stauffer, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies, and Dr. Rukmalie Jayakody, assistant professor of human development and family studies and a research associate at Penn State's Population Research Institute, conducted the study. Stauffer presented their results today (Aug. 22) in a paper, "Prevalence of Mental Health Problems Among Welfare Recipients: Implications for Welfare Reform," at the American Sociological Association conference.
The study considered data from 2,609 single mothers, with annual personal incomes less than $20,000, who had been interviewed in the 1994 and 1995 waves of the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (NHSDA). Only 44 percent of the women had received welfare during the previous year since not all women eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children actually receive it. Ethnically, the sample was 46.6 percent White, 36.3 percent Black and 17.1 percent Hispanic.
The Penn State researchers found that 23 percent of the welfare recipients had one of the psychiatric disorders considered in the study compared with 17 percent of the non-welfare recipients. The NHSDA considered only four disorders, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia or avoidance of open or public spaces.
Jayakody said, "Our findings actually underestimate the effects of psychiatric disorders since the full battery of possible mental health problems was not considered."
Major depression and agoraphobia were the most prevalent disorders among the women in the NHSDA sample. Fourteen percent of the welfare recipients had major depression versus 10 percent of the non-recipients. Agoraphobia was present among 6 percent of the welfare mothers versus 3 percent of the non-welfare mothers.
Stauffer said, "Several lines of evidence suggest that welfare recipients will have higher rates of psychiatric disorders than non-recipients."
The Penn State researcher cites previous studies, conducted by other researchers, which showed that individuals in the lowest social class are two and one half times more likely to have mental health problems than individuals in the highest social class. Individuals with incomes below $19,000 are twice as likely to have experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months compared with individuals with incomes above $77,000.
Women have nearly twice the lifetime and 12 month prevalence rates for major depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia and other anxiety and depression-based disorders, Stauffer said. Single mothers demonstrate higher levels of psychiatric symptoms than other categories of women.
The researchers pointed out that stressful environmental and life events, ongoing strain, limited social and economic resources, and other demographic disadvantages provide a compelling explanation as to why welfare mothers are more likely to be psychologically distressed.
"Regardless of whether mental health problems are a cause or a consequence of welfare receipt, some portion of the current caseload experiences them," Jayakody said. "This fact calls for greater attention to mental health problems, which may be significant in preventing some women form transitioning from welfare to work within specified time limits.
"While current research and policy focus on employment barriers such as education and job training, our results indicate that the provision of mental health services also may be an important component of successful programs that move welfare recipients into the work force," she added.