Psychologists are just beginning to understand how poverty changes the brain. When people are under constant stress about how to feed their families, how they can bear up under the stress of working three jobs, and how they will pay for the rent, utilities, and medical bills — their brains suffer under high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

“Under high cortisol loads, [the amygdala] literally atrophies,” said Dr. Melinda Paige, a behavioral expert and professor in clinical mental health counseling at Argosy University in Atlanta, Georgia. 

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That part of the brain then sets off an alarm, sort of like telling the brain that it is “running from a tiger 24/7 subconsciously.” The animal portion of the brain makes up 85 percent of our gray matter, and that part of the brain “mobilizes for fight or flight all the time,” Paige told LifeZette.

That’s why a lot of poor people turn to drugs for solace, she explained. They’re trying to calm their brain down and give themselves room to feel peace.

At the same time that high cortisol levels hyperactivate the animalistic part of the brain, the section that allows people to plan and think logically becomes less functional. The ability to plan, concentrate, learn, pay attention to detail — all become exceptionally difficult because the other portion of the brain is in constant panic.

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The “bad kids” at school often come from violent homes where they witness substance abuse, alcoholism, unchecked tempers, financial stress, and community violence. “They’re so traumatized that they’re not able to focus in school, so they’re diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ridalin and Adderall to make them convenient,” said Paige.

Teachers are reporting an increased number of kids with hyperactivity who refuse to pay attention during class. Twelve percent of children ages five to 17 now have a diagnosis of ADHD — a 43-percent increase from 2003.

But ADHD is likely an incorrect diagnosis. “They need treatment for [post-traumatic stress disorder], not ADHD,” Paige said.

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[lz_bulleted_list title=”Symptoms of PTSD in Children and Teens” source=””]Reckless behaviors|Negative cognitive development|Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities|Angry outbursts|Irritability|Trouble concentrating[/lz_bulleted_list]

Poverty has a bidirectional effect on the mind — it can heighten a genetic disposition toward mental illness, and it can create situations that exacerbate mental illness with no genetic root. Young boys are often diagnosed with ADHD or oppositional defiance disorder, when really, they have to exert hyper-vigilance in order to stay safe in an impoverished environment. Letting their guard down or allowing themselves to become less aggressive could mean physical harm. They often come across as angry, when they’re just feeling threatened.

Paige said many of her patients exhibit the same signs as war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress — sleeplessness, irritability, flashbacks.

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Thankfully, PTSD treatments have become more effective and can help victims re-associate terrible memories with calm emotions through a combination of mindfulness therapy and hypnosis. And schools are helping counselors learn to identify PTSD when they see it.

“Veterans have their own court, to be sure they’re not penalizing a man for choking his wife at night when he thinks she’s the enemy,” Paige said. “That guy doesn’t need jail; he needs mental health care.”

Trauma-informed schools serve the same purpose: to tease out the childhood victims “who are truly survivors of trauma and get them treated properly instead of dealing with them as if they’re a conduct issue.”