Moving Out of High Poverty Affects the Mental Health of Boys and Girls Differently

For families who moved out of high-poverty neighborhoods, boys experienced an increase and girls a decrease in rates of depression and conduct disorder, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School analyzed the outcomes of an intervention to encourage moving out of high-poverty neighborhoods, and subsequent changes in mental disorders from childhood to adolescence. The intervention, called the Moving to Opportunity Demonstration, included 3,689 children from over 4,000 families, over a four year period between 1994 and 1998.  The “low poverty” group received vouchers to move to low-poverty neighborhoods; the vouchers for the second, “traditional” group had no geographical restrictions and a control group had no intervention.

The children were ages 0 through 8 at the beginning of the study, and 13 through 19 at the time of follow-up interviews 10 to 15 years later.  A total of 2,872 adolescents were interviewed and mental disorders were assessed and identified.

The researchers found that compared with the control group, a higher proportion of boys in the low-poverty voucher group had major depression (7.1 percent vs 3.5 percent), posttraumatic stress disorder (6.2 percent vs 1.9 percent), and conduct disorder (6.4 percent vs 2.1 percent). A higher proportion of boys in the traditional voucher group had PTSD compared with the control group (4.9 percent vs 1.9 percent). However, compared with the control group, a lower proportion of girls in the traditional voucher group had major depression (6.5 percent vs 10.9 percent) and conduct disorder (0.3 percent vs 2.9 percent).

The authors write in the study’s conclusion that “the findings suggest that the interventions might have had harmful effects on boys but protective effects on girls.”

They add that “Future governmental decisions regarding widespread implementation of changes in public housing policy will have to grapple with this complexity based on the realization that no policy decision will have benign effects on both boys and girls…”

The authors conclude that “better understanding of interactions among individual, family, and neighborhood risk factors is needed to guide future public housing policy changes in light of these sex differences.”

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