Food Insecurity and Mental Health
Hunger affects not just the body, but also the mind.
By Mary Beringer, Grant Writer
May is Mental Health Awareness Month It is a time to acknowledge and empathize with the millions of people who struggle with mental illness, and ultimately break the stigma associated with mental health issues. In America alone, one in five adults is living with a mental illness. While there can be a genetic component to mental health, some conditions are caused entirely by responses to personal trauma and lived experiences. One of the traumatic circumstances that can have a devastating effect on one’s mental health is food insecurity.
Research has shown again and again that food insecurity has an impact on the way the human brain operates. The constant stress and instability of not having enough of what you need to survive, and wondering where your next meal will come from, takes a significant toll on the brain and body. Additionally, there is evidence that a lack of certain nutrients plays a role in mental illnesses. No matter the cause, the results are clear: food insecurity can lead to anxiety, mood disorders, substance use, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression, and more. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, “mothers with school-aged children who face severe hunger are 56.5% more likely to have PTSD, and 53.1% more likely to have severe depression”. One study showed that the risk of depression due to food insecurity was higher in people over 65, as opposed to younger people. That being said, food insecurity can have a significant impact on children, especially those in school.
Most people know how a lack of sufficient nutrients can impact a child’s growth. Unfortunately, hunger can affect young people’s mental development too. Kids need lots of energy, both to grow into healthy adults, and to participate in learning and play that will serve them well later in life. The very state of being hungry makes it hard for kids to focus on school, and can slow the development of language and motor skills. Children experiencing food insecurity also often have behavioral issues, which can sometimes result in aggression or hyperactivity. Behavioral issues mean a student will spend more time distracted from classwork, which can lead to declining school performance. According to Feeding America, “Fifty percent of children facing hunger will need to repeat a grade.” Childhood hunger can lead to depression and even suicidal ideation in later life. There is no good time to be hungry.
Mental health struggles are about more than just feeling moody or getting distracted easily. These are serious quality of life issues that can contribute to and exacerbate physical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and even death. Too frequently, the most food insecure populations have the most difficulty accessing mental health services Less than 15% of children experiencing poverty who need mental health care are actually getting it, and the statistics for adults are comparable. Income, race, and geography can all be factors that play into whether or not a person who needs mental health help will be able to receive it. Many therapists and psychiatrists only offer their services during business hours on weekdays, when many people cannot afford to take time off for these services. Moreover, waiting lists for mental health clinics are long, and even once you get in, it often takes months of steady appointments before it feels like you’re making any progress.
Unfortunately, medication and therapy cannot cure systemic societal issues. While The Foodbank, Inc. is doing what it can to get at the root cause of the problem, addressing food insecurity in the Miami Valley, there are people already feeling the effects of hunger on their mental health. If you have Medicaid, you can call the member services number on the back of your card for more information about network providers. The government organization SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) can also provide assistance.
You are never alone, and if our communities can talk openly about mental health, we can all help reduce the stigma and make it easier for people to ask for help.