‘It was definitely rough’: Why growing up in poverty takes a mental toll

This story is part of a series from CBC Cape Breton called The High Cost of Getting By. In the series, reporters examine how the rising cost of daily living is affecting people on the island. For the last several months, reporters from our newsroom spoke with people who are struggling because of the high costs of basic necessities like housing, food and home repairs. 


A young Glace Bay woman is speaking out about how child poverty can affect a person’s mental health.

“I want to be financially stable for sure before I even think about having a family because I know it does put a lot of stress on the kids,” said 21-year-old Haley Strickland.

Strickland is now living with her boyfriend in a room in her grandmother’s house in Glace Bay.

She’s in her first year of an early childhood education program at the Nova Scotia Community College, which she’s able to afford thanks to a government subsidy program. She receives a monthly social assistance cheque of $600.

Tough road

She’s optimistic about her future. But it’s been a tough road.

“I grew up with four younger siblings and my parents [both of whom are unable to work] and some animals. And we all lived in one house with three bedrooms,” she said. “It was pretty tight.”

According to statistics, one in three children on the island lives below the poverty line. Strickland puts a human face to the numbers.

According to the 2021 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia, which uses tax information from 2019, the childhood poverty rate in the CBRM is 33.5 per cent. The rate for the province as a whole isn’t much better with 24.3 per cent of children in Nova Scotia living in poverty.

One in three children in CBRM live in poverty, according to the 2021 report card on child and family poverty in Nova Scotia. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

“As a child, I didn’t really notice it too much,” said Strickland. “I did notice that I had less than other people did. But I was fine with just playing with their stuff.”

It was more apparent when she got to junior high.

“People were getting really expensive clothes and … they were able to afford to do really expensive sports.”

She wanted to join gymnastics and dance, but her family couldn’t afford it. She tried out for school sports, but wasn’t chosen for any teams because she wasn’t popular, she said.

“I did want to be involved in things, I just didn’t have the money to,” she said.

She believes friends avoided asking her along on outings because they knew she couldn’t afford to go.

‘It wasn’t my fault’

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“When the bullying started, that’s when it really bothered me,” she said. “Because it wasn’t my fault. And it wasn’t really my parents fault. It’s just kind of the situation that we were put in.

“There [were] other reasons I was bullied … but I think that was the main one, because I wouldn’t be popular because I didn’t have the money to be…. I did fall into a depression because of it.”

She recalls being pushed against a wall by another student, being taunted with insults and told she should kill herself.

“I remember one time someone threw money at me and said, ‘Oh you could use this,’ or something like that.”

She stopped going to school and ended up having to repeat Grade 8.

“I had a tough situation at home,” she said. “And then school wasn’t going well for me. So I just felt like I had nowhere to have just a little peace for myself. And my mental health was deteriorating…. And I didn’t have money to get help for it anyway. So it was definitely rough.”

By 18, she had started abusing alcohol.

The connection between childhood poverty and physical and mental health outcomes has been established, said Leslie Frank, a sociology professor at Acadia University, and one of the authors of the 2021 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia.

Lesley Frank, a professor at Acadia University, says Nova Scotia is performing poorly compared to other provinces in battling child poverty. (Lesley Frank/Twitter )

“There’s been links to poverty and food insecurity — which is the nutritional outcomes of poverty — in children and adults in such things as mental health outcomes, increased rates of depression, suicide ideation in children and teenagers,” said Frank.

There’s also evidence to connect childhood poverty with poorer educational outcomes, higher rates of dropout, increased involvement in crime, and increased rates of hospital admission, she said.

“It affects your mental health, your social being … and your personal self-esteem. It affects the whole person,” said Chester Borden, executive director of BGC Cape Breton, a youth club in Whitney Pier.

He sees children weighed down with their family’s financial struggles. “That’s a heavy, heavy burden to carry.”

Change has been slow to come. Nova Scotia has performed the worst of all provinces in reducing child poverty from 1989 levels with a decrease over 30 years of only 0.1 per cent.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Borden. “We should be ashamed as a society.”

Chester Borden is executive director of BGC Cape Breton, a youth club in Whitney Pier. (Submitted by Chester Borden)

He’d like to see more government funding put toward prevention, such as support for youth clubs like his own.

Strickland credits the Undercurrent Youth Centre in Glace Bay with providing her a secure and supportive environment that helped see her through some of her challenges.

A key part of the solution lies in tackling the root of the problem, said Borden.

That means paying families a living wage, and Frank agrees.

“For me … the most important thing is the province needs a poverty eradication plan,” said Frank. “And it needs to be tied to targets. And it needs to be legislated, so that when governments change the plan doesn’t fall off the table.”

In his 2021 mandate letter to Minister of Community Services Karla MacFarlane, Premier Tim Houston called for the creation of a five-year plan for reducing childhood poverty in Nova Scotia.

Government response

In a written statement, MacFarlane said: “The fact that there are children in Nova Scotia living in poverty is deeply troubling. I believe it is one of the most serious issues that exists in our province.

“I want to assure all Nova Scotians that the Department of Community Services is currently working across provincial government departments, and with the advice and guidance of key stakeholders and experts from outside government, to develop a comprehensive approach to addressing child poverty.”

In the meantime, Strickland said she’d like to see more mental health support for young people like her.

The Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line is available 24/7 toll free at 1-888-429-8167. And free eMental Health and Addictions tools are available at MHAHelpNS.ca.

However, the current median wait time for children and teens to have a first appointment with a mental health clinician is 112 days in CBRM. It’s 53 days in rural Cape Breton.

Strickland hopes by that speaking out about her experience she can breed compassion for other young people who are living in poverty.

“Just be kind,” she said.

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