Does alleviating poverty affect mothers’ depressive symptoms? A quasi-experimental investigation of Mexico’s Oportunidades programme

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Abstract

Background Depression is a major cause of disability, particularly among women; poverty heightens the risk for depression. Beyond its direct effects, maternal depression can harm children’s health and development. This study aimed to assess the effects of a large-scale anti-poverty programme in Mexico (Oportunidades) on maternal depressive symptoms.

Methods In 2003, 5050 women living in rural communities who had participated in Oportunidades since its inception were assessed and compared with a group of 1293 women from matched communities, whose families had received no exposure to Oportunidades at the time of assessment but were later enrolled. Self-reported depressive symptoms were measured using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D). Ordinary least squares regressions were used to evaluate the treatment effect of programme participation on depression while adjusting for covariates and clustering at the community level.

Results Women in the treatment group had lower depressive symptoms than those in the comparison group (unadjusted mean CES-D scores: 16.9 ± 9.8 vs 18.6 ± 10.2). In multivariable analyses, programme participation was associated with lower depression whilst controlling for maternal age, education and household demographic, ethnicity and socio-economic variables [β = −1.7 points, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) −2.46 to −0.96, P < 0.001]. Reductions in perceived stress and increases in perceived control were mediators of programme effects on women.

Conclusions Although Oportunidades did not target maternal mental health directly, we found modest but clinically meaningful effects on depressive symptoms. Our design permits stronger causal inference than observational studies that have linked poverty and depressive symptoms. Our results emphasize that the well-being of individuals is responsive to macro-level economic policies and programmes.

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