For poor mothers, concrete financial services may do more to alleviate anxiety than therapy, researchers say. Flickr via Creative Commons

Poor mothers are often diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, but this anxiety is probably more related to living in poverty than actual mental illness, a group of researchers argues.

A study led by Rutgers professor Judith C. Baer and published in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal examined data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which examined nearly 5,000 children and their families in urban areas. They found that women exhibiting certain signifiers of poverty -- having problems paying utilities, receiving free food -- had a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

The researchers also said they saw no clear link between anxiety and consistently negative parenting behaviors like over-punishment and hostility towards a child.

This suggests that mothers can be poor and anxious, but still provide positive parenting for their children, the authors wrote.

Baer thinks that modern psychiatric diagnostic standards, based heavily on the symptoms that a patient is presenting, don't leave much room for context. As a result, many poor mothers are told they have a mental disorder when their anxiety is really a byproduct of their lives.

Basically we were trying to speak to the fact that much of life is being pathologized -- and unnecessarily so, Baer said in a telephone interview Friday.

Sometimes a person affected by a recent traumatic event, like a job loss or the loss of a family member, presents the same symptoms of depression or anxiety as a person with a truly malfunctioning brain mechanism, Baer explained.

Pathologizing poverty-related anxiety not only places unwarranted stigma on some poor mothers, but may steer anxious mothers towards less effective treatments, Baer argues.

While supportive therapy and parent skills-training are often helpful, sometimes the most appropriate intervention is financial aid and concrete services, Baer said in a statement Thursday.

SOURCE: Baer et al. Is it Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Poverty? An Examination of Poor Mothers and Their Children. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal.