Socioeconomic inequalities in health are an important topic in social sciences and public health research. However, little is known about socioeconomic disparities and mental health problems in childhood and adolescence. This study systematically reviews publications on the relationships between various commonly used indicators of socioeconomic status (SES) and mental health outcomes for children and adolescents aged four to 18 years. Studies published in English or German between 1990 and 2011 were included if they reported at least one marker of socioeconomic status (an index or indicators, e.g., household income, poverty, parental education, parental occupation status, or family affluence) and identified mental health problems using validated instruments. In total, 55 published studies met the inclusion criteria, and 52 studies indicated an inverse relationship between socioeconomic status and mental health problems in children and adolescents. Socioeconomically disadvantaged children and adolescents were two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems. Low socioeconomic status that persisted over time was strongly related to higher rates of mental health problems. A decrease in socioeconomic status was associated with increasing mental health problems. The strength of the correlation varied with age and with different indicators of socioeconomic status, whereas heterogeneous findings were reported for gender and types of mental health problems. The included studies indicated that the theoretical approaches of social causation and classical selection are not mutually exclusive across generations and specific mental health problems; these processes create a cycle of deprivation and mental health problems. The review draws attention to the diversity of measures used to evaluate socioeconomic status, which might have influenced the comparability of international epidemiological studies. Furthermore, the review highlights the need for individual-level early childhood interventions as well as a reduction in socioeconomic inequalities at a societal level to improve mental health in childhood and adolescence.
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