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Single Mothers On Public Assistance At High Risk For Mental Health And Substance Abuse

a mother providing comfort to her childWomen surveyed near their lifetime exhaustion of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) were found to have high prevalence rates of lifetime mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders.  The majority of women with such problems had never received treatment.

Dr. Judith Cook of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and colleagues surveyed a random sample of mothers in Cook County, Illinois, on their last 24 months of TANF benefits.  Women were interviewed on lifetime and past 12-month existence of mental health and substance use problems.

Women had high rates of lifetime (over 60%) and past 12-month (over 45%) disorders. Depression and anxiety were the most common problems.  The survey may have underestimated rates because non-English speakers and those who were not literate were excluded from the study.  While over 40% of those with substance use disorders received treatment, people with mental disorders were much less likely to receive intervention (22%).

Prior research has noted the link between poverty and increased risk for mental disorders due to the stressors associated with being poor.  This result might be attenuated for those who will no longer be receiving public assistance as they may be increasingly worried about their family’s circumstances.  Studies have also noted the risk to children’s mental health when they are being reared by parents with mental illness.  The implication is that screening for mental health disorders should routinely take place among those receiving public assistance so that appropriate identification and treatment referral may follow.

Cook, J., Mock, L., Jonikas, J., Burke-Miller, J., Carter, T., Taylor, A., Peterson, C., Grey, D., Gruenenfelder, D. (2010). Prevalence of psychiatric and substance use disorders among single mothers nearing lifetime welfare eligibility limits. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 249-258.

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