As communities struggle with food insecurity, study shows impacts on youth mental health

A study recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal is showing how youth mental health can be impacted by food insecurity. Nick Westoll has more on the findings and the calls for action.

A newly published study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal is showing youth who live in households that have food insecurity are seeing higher reported instances of mental health issues.

“Given the diverse mental health conditions examined, it is unlikely, however, that the mechanism of harm is lack of specific nutrients or poor diet quality,” an article posted on Monday said in part.

“Much more likely is that food insecurity contributes to mental distress among those living in difficult circumstances, as has been shown in studies of the relationship between severity of household food insecurity and mental health disorders among adults.”

It also said boosting and ensuring access to income support, supported by advocacy from doctors, is needed.

Previous research by Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and the lead investigator with PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research, was cited in the article. She said the findings are important.

“Children and adolescents in food insecure households had a 55-per-cent higher prevalence of outpatient contacts and a 74-per-cent higher prevalence of acute care contacts for reasons of mental or substance use disorder compared to children and adolescents in food secure situations,” Tarasuk told CityNews.

“It’s a rare thing for a child or an adolescent to turn up in our health care system being treated for reasons of mental health, but what’s clear from this study is that if they’re coming from a food insecure family, they’re way more likely to turn up.”

Tarasuk noted it’s not necessarily just the diet that contributes toward the problem but rather overall circumstances.

“A family that is struggling to afford enough food is also struggling to afford all kinds of things like rent, utilities, you know, other things that those children would need,” she said.

“Too often, our reaction is, ‘Well, we’ve got a problem with food insecurity. We need to provide food.’ I think the study challenges us to say, ‘No, no, no, actually this is this problem is more pervasive. It goes deeper, it’s more long-lasting.”

While noting the data used for the study is nearly 10 years old, the problem is more severe, and Tarasuk said new data along with additional research is required.

RELATED: New report shows food insecurity persists in Ontario

Laurette Jack, a program coordinator at the Eastview Boys and Girls Club of Canada (BGC) location in Toronto, knows first-hand the importance of making sure children are properly fed.

“When there is a lack of food, nutritious food, access to food, it can create all kinds of mental health issues … in terms of the kids, there’s anxiety, depression,” she told CityNews.

She said staff try to teach children about healthy food choices and how to make low-cost meals, but education can only go so far. Jack said keeping up with the needs of youth who come to the facility can be a struggle.

“I’ve been working with kids for 34 years and with BGC for 30, and it’s an ongoing issue, but just with the rising cost of food and so much Generally in life that’s going on, you definitely are feeling the impact from the kids,” she said, adding the same impact on the parents is there too.

The club offers snacks and meals, rescues food from culinary businesses and offers a food bank. However, the study found food banks and charities like Eastview aren’t effective enough to reduce food insecurity.

“There’s a broader, broader systemic issue,” Jack said while urging decision-makers to address the ongoing food crisis.

“How do we supplement families as a whole (and) not just individual organizations looking to do our small part, which is huge, but still not big enough?

“There is no mental wellness without making sure your tummy is full.”

Meanwhile, Tarasuk said low provincial social assistance rates and the current federal child care benefit aren’t helping enough.

“What we’ve got is the poorest people in the provinces effectively getting poor, so social assistance is an obvious thing for the provinces to do,” she said.

“The fact that we have about one in four children under the age of 18 living in a food insecure households in Canada right now is nothing to celebrate, and the Canada Child Benefit needs to own that problem as far as I’m concerned. [It] means taking a look at how much child benefit are we providing to low-income families.”

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