Mental Health and Food Insecurity: Connected?

As a food bank, we help people through some of the most difficult times of their lives. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, October 3rd through 9th, we’ve chosen to acknowledge the impact of food insecurity on mental health. We hope this information encourages a more compassionate and respectful understanding of people struggling with food insecurity.  

First of all, what is mental health? The Center for Disease Control describes mental health as “an important part of overall health and well-being [that] includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” Conversations surrounding mental health have become more common over the past decade. People are beginning to see how mental health is interrelated to socio-economic, racial, and cultural factors.  

Food insecurity is an example of a related factor. To be food secure, a person must have access to nutritionally complete, affordable, and culturally relevant food. A lack of food security, known as food insecurity, is intimately related to a person’s mental health. 

During the early pandemic, BMC health found that food insecurity was the cause of a 257% higher risk of anxiety and a 253% higher risk of depression. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine published in 2019 that “food insecurity can provoke a stress response that contributes to anxiety and depression.”

Andrew G. Jones, Ph.D. found that food insecurity increases anxiety and depression because it “induce[s] feelings of alienation, powerless, shame, and guilt.” Food insecurity can also be socially isolating, and increased social isolation can result in depression and anxiety. In a 2016 study, Public Health Science Direct found that people who struggled with food insecurity “limit [their] participation in social activities and in their communities” due to lack of food access.  

Children also experience a variety of mental health issues due to food insecurity. The 2016 Public Health study by Science Direct identified that “school-aged children with severe hunger had significantly higher anxiety and internalizing behaviors.” In Understanding the Psychological Distress of Food Insecurity: A Qualitative Study of Children’s Experiences and Related Coping Strategies, the children interview expressed themes pertaining to psychological distress including “worrying about not having enough food, worrying about their parents’ wellbeing, anger and frustration about not having enough food, embarrassment about their family’s food situation, the strain on the family’s dynamics, and sadness over not having enough food.”  

Also, a 2012 study conducted by the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychology (AACAP) discovered that there was a 14% increase in odds of having a mental disorder in the past year due to food insecurity. Behavior problems among children struggling with food insecurity were also found to be more prominent. The 2012 AACAP study reported that 36.7% of the food insecure children they studied had behavior problems, including aggression, anxiety/ depression, or inattention.  

The consequences of food insecurity are wide-reaching. Our work at Food for Others helps alleviate food insecurity and with less food insecurity, the mental health outcomes of adults and children who were struggling can improve.