Social Policy Researcher Dedicates Career to Reducing the Mental Health Impact of Poverty
Growing up in Lima, Peru, Oscar Jiménez-Solomon witnessed extreme poverty—people begging for food, families living in shacks, and young children selling candy on buses.
“It wasn’t only the economic poverty but also the human pain that came with it,” Jiménez-Solomon said, “the shame and indignity, the fear of where the next meal will come from, and the shear hopelessness about the future.
His family was not well off, but his parents worked hard and believed in education. Jiménez-Solomon graduated with a BA in sociology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and came to the United States to pursue a Master of Public Health at Columbia in 2001. But a year later after graduating he became undocumented.
“I found myself seriously underemployed, working two or three jobs to make ends meet, living years in borderline poverty, and having to file for bankruptcy,” he said. “I felt ashamed, a failure.”
Resuming a research career
Jiménez-Solomon said he was fortunate. When he was able to obtain permanent residence, he could get better jobs and pursue again the research career he abandoned. “I had education, which gave me opportunities,” he said.
Today Jiménez-Solomon is a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI), Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who has dedicated his career to improving the financial wellness of people in psychiatric distress through social and policy research and program development. He is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the Columbia University School of Social Work. At the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy, his research focuses on how financial hardship affects mental health and how untreated distress can lead to further economic decline and impoverishment.
Poverty-mental illness link
The association between financial hardship and poor mental health—and its accompanying social stressors, stigma, and trauma—is well-documented. “Poverty can lead to hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and even suicide,” Jiménez-Solomon said.
Yet, he said, the public mental health system historically has focused on treating the symptoms or ways of coping with poverty, but not the root causes.
“Treating the symptoms is important and essential, but it’s not enough,” he said. “We also have to develop interventions and strategies to help individuals improve their financial situation and to buffer the impact of unemployment, financial loss, evictions, and other challenges resulting from poverty.”
From ‘Hardship to Hope’
The poverty Jiménez-Solomon sees in New York and in the United States often looks different than the poverty he grew up witnessing in Peru. “I can see the pain of poverty in the person begging for money, but I can also see it in the people falling asleep in the subways after working several jobs, the people wondering how they will pay for rent at the end of the month, and the person in too much debt and feeling hopeless, trapped, and ashamed.”
Social policies, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and minimum wage can also play a role in helping individuals and communities by easing financial and emotional strain. For example, he said, research has found that a $1 increase in the minimum wage can decrease suicide rates by 6% among adults with high school education or lower. Similarly, a 10% increase in the minimum wage reduces suicides by about 3 percent. Other research has also shown that the EITC reduces psychological distress and depression, improves self-esteem, especially among mothers with children.
Jiménez-Solomon and his team at the NYSPI Center of Excellence for Cultural Competence are developing a peer-led economic empowerment intervention—called From Hardship to Hope—for people experiencing distress, in partnership with Baltic Street, AEH., one of the leading peer-run organizations in the country. The program is facilitated by individuals with a lived experience of mental health recovery trained to help others in their recovery process.
Jiménez-Solomon is also working with the NYSPI Mental Wellness Equity Center to develop a systematic and scalable way to address the social determinants of mental health in tandem with the provision of mental health services. In partnership with Acacia Network and Services for the Underserved, two leading community agencies in New York City, ENGAGE has begun providing services to screen for financial hardship, engage individuals to identify their main financial stressors and goals, and refer those in need to free financial counseling available through the network of NYC Financial Empowerment Centers.
Jiménez-Solomon said we need more programs like these that can support their mental health and their social needs and stronger social policies to reduce preventable mental health problems in the first place.
“What we ultimately need is willingness to change the way we practice mental health care, and the way we think about what mental health care is,” he said.