Social mobility: The psychological effects of society’s systematics barriers

An Insight into the Mental Health Struggles which Disadvantaged People Trying to Reach a Better Life Regularly Face

Writer: Raymond Danks
Artist: Charlotte Capitanchik

As a person who comes from a financially deprived background, my family has experienced homelessness, severe mental health issues, incarceration, abuse, addiction and they have come out the other side as the strongest, most loving and awe-inspiring people. However, the further I climb up the academic ladder, the fewer people I meet who come from a background similar to mine, or those who can empathise with the mental strain that comes with improving social mobility. The self-induced pressure to voraciously avoid failure can lead to stark and influential psychological problems in those attempting to socially mobilise themselves and provide a better life for their families.

What is the evidence?

The relation between poverty and mental illness has been investigated thoroughly – particularly within the last 2 decades. One study concluded that 17% of children whose parents had no educational background have a diagnosed mental illness, compared to 4% of children whose parents have degree-level educations. Moreover, the same study states that in families where no parents are working, 20% of children have a diagnosed mental illness, compared to 8% from families where both parents are working.  

The psychological effects of social mobility itself have not been  thoroughly investigated. A 2018 study conducted within the University of Oxford’s Sociology Department investigated levels of allostatic load – the “wear and tear” on the body due to chronic stresses. The study concluded that far higher allostatic loads are found in those who have mobilised from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ socioeconomic classes, than those who were born into and remained in higher classes. Another study published in the American Journal of Sociology , indicated that upwardly mobile people report higher than predicted levels of Manifest Anxiety and Psychosomatic symptoms – issues often reported in sufferers of chronic stress.

What causes this stress?

These stressors include the awareness of the lack of a safety net – if you fail then you and your family may remain in a cycle of poverty; housing struggles (no guarantors or large deposits), and disillusionment. When there are no role models for the path you have been chosen to take,  adjusting to unknowns can be difficult; evident financial problems, and the self-imposed pressure that you have an opportunity to afford your family a better life, can have a significant impact on your mental health. Professor John Jacobs further acknowledges that disadvantaged people live with more uncertainty, which imposes a considerable mental burden.

A Humanitarian Approach

Disadvantaged young people worldwide are trying their best to seize their afforded opportunities, but are unfortunately falling victim to the desperation of their situations. The knowledge, that failing at any step of this process could mean a worse life for your family, is an excruciating mental burden. Nonetheless, this is the unjust and cold reality for many people. These pressures have a consistent tangible effect on the mental wellbeing of disadvantaged people and it should not be this way.

What Can Be Done?

In conclusion, in order to better understand and aid those with less privileged backgrounds, institutions which pride themselves as being facilitators for social mobility and change – such as Universities – need to actively encourage greater representation within their remit. This includes specifically encouraging students and staff from working class and disadvantaged backgrounds for higher education and work opportunities. Working with disadvantaged students in managing their mental health and encouraging more empathy from staff about the stressors placed on working class students and how this may seriously affect their psychological wellbeing is key to supporting those from disadvantaged backgrounds.


[1] (pages 27 & 28)

[1] Meltzer, H & Gatward, R & Goodman, R & Ford, Tamsin. (2003). Mental health of children and adolescents in Great Britain (Reprinted from 2000). International review of psychiatry (Abingdon, England). 15. 185-7. 10.1080/0954026021000046155.

[2] Kessin, Kenneth. “Social and Psychological Consequences of Intergenerational Occupational Mobility.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 77, no. 1, 1971, pp. 1–18. JSTOR, (page 13)



[5] Präg P, Richards L. Intergenerational social mobility and allostatic load in Great Britain. J Epidemiol Community Health 2019;73:100-105.

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