How poverty affects children’s mental health

Photo of Kelly Corcoran outside
Kelly Corcoran - Digital Communications Officer
Wednesday 26 June 2024
Young girl looking in empty fridge with sister

Right now, 4.3 million children live in poverty in the UK. That’s 100,000 more than 2021/22 - and 30% of all children.

This is a devastating number of children going without the safe and happy childhoods they deserve.

But how does growing up in poverty affect mental health? And what are we doing at Action for Children to help children and families in poverty?

How does poverty affect children's mental health?

Poverty can have numerous effects on children’s physical and mental health. From affecting a family’s ability to access essentials like food and heating, to making it harder to take part in activities like sports clubs or school trips. These factors can all influence a child’s mental wellbeing and self-esteem.

Currently 1.6 million children (11% of all children) live in low-income households that struggle to afford essentials like warm winter coats and fresh fruit and vegetables.

For children growing up in poverty, going without the things that others take for granted can contribute to increased anxiety or low mood.

The Children’s Society states that children living around debt are five times more likely to be unhappy than children who are not living around debt.

Comparison can make these struggles even harder - whether comparing to wealthier peers or other young people on social media. Young children growing up in lower income households may not understand why their lives are different to other children’s. They may not understand why they don’t get the same gifts or why they can’t go on school trips.

Each of these experiences can cause a child to have lower self-esteem or struggle with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.

Help us reach more children

Last year, we helped 765,905 families, children, and young people. With your help, we could reach more.


Poverty's effect on parents' mental health

Living in poverty affects the whole family. But for a child's mental wellbeing, the impact can be profound and long-lasting.

For families experiencing financial difficulties, daily tasks like a food shop can cause stress and worry. Being a parent is difficult, and poverty can add even more pressure. This can make giving their child a safe and happy childhood even harder.

It may make it harder for parents to control their mood or emotions, causing children to worry or feel sad seeing them upset. If parents don’t have the support they need, then the child may end up taking on caregiving roles. All of this can result in poorer mental health for the child.

Boy looking into the camera holding a teddy bear

What is the extent of poverty in the UK?

One in three children in the UK – or nine in every classroom – are now growing up in poverty. This is the highest ever number of children living in poverty in the UK.

The risk of poverty is not the same for everyone

The number of children living in poverty differs across region and ethnic group. Unfortunately, those living in households where the head of the house is either Bangladeshi or Pakistani have a higher rate of poverty than those from white ethnic backgrounds (2021/ 2022).

And when we consider where child poverty is increasing the most in the UK, regional data shows that areas in the Midlands and Northern England have been the hardest hit.

We must act now

Explore the impact of child poverty in your area, and send this to your MP

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How Action for Children supports children’s mental health

Right now, a devastating number of children are going without the safe and happy childhoods they deserve. And thousands of parents are struggling to get the support they need.

We understand the importance of good mental health. That’s why we have thousands of frontline workers supporting children and their families every day.

Whether services like the Blues Programme that reaches children and young people, or Parent Talk to help struggling parents, our support services address a range of issues. But we can only do this because of the generous support from people like you.

Last year we received 3,552 referrals for children and young people. I know that without the work we do, these young people can struggle to get the support they need... about 98% of people report successful outcomes when their interventions end.

Tina, a Service Coordinator at a children’s and young people’s service

Last year, we reached 765,905 children, young people, and their families. And with your help, we can continue reaching the people that need us.


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Where can you get help

Take a look at the list below to see some of the services we offer.

  • The Blues programme: a six-week wellbeing programme for young people aged 13-19. It teaches emotional resilience and helps to reduce low mood and anxious thoughts.
  • Parent Talk: our online hub for down-to-earth parenting advice including topics such as mental and emotional wellbeing. Parents can browse our advice articles or speak directly to a coach through our one-to-one live chat.
  • Writing for Mental Health: includes two toolkits - one for young people aged 11-18 and the other for adults working with young people. Each toolkit includes printable activities and ideas to get young people writing to express how they feel.
  • Our services: our 426 local services offer a huge range of support when you need it. Browse the services by location or topic.
  • Our blog: read our inspiring and informative articles written by support staff and service users. You can filter for topics including ‘Mental health’, 'Young People, and ‘Poverty’.

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