Story at a glance

  • Food insecurity and insufficiency have risen during the pandemic.
  • A national survey suggests that people experiencing food insufficiency are more likely to have unmet needs for mental health counseling and services.
  • Experts hope that health care providers and policy makers continue to make this a priority.

During the pandemic, many households experienced food insecurity due to closures and job losses. This can lead to mental health concerns like anxiety and depression symptoms. But a new analysis of survey data suggests that people who are food insecure may not be getting access to the services that they need.

Food insufficiency is a more severe version of food insecurity where there is not enough food and not just worry or inconsistent access. Past studies have shown that food insecurity or insufficiency are related to worse mental health outcomes, Jason Nagata, who is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Changing America. That makes sense because being hungry or worrying about not getting enough food can lead to anxiety, depression and stressors, he continues.

To look into this issue, Nagata and collaborators analyzed survey data from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey that was collected in October 2020. In a paper published in Public Health Nutrition, they report that food insufficiency may be linked to mental health needs. “This was still before vaccines were available,” says Nagata. “This is heading into the election and the holidays when maybe people weren't able to be family members so I do think it was a period of high stressors for a lot of people.” 

The specific questions that they were interested in included questions about taking prescription medication to help with emotions or concentration, behavior mental health, receiving counseling or therapy from a mental health professional, and if they were not able to access counseling or therapy for any reason.

The survey also asked about food insecurity, whether they had enough to eat in the last 7 days. Participants could answer that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat, which the researchers counted as food insufficiency. Overall, 11 percent of participants reported food insufficiency.


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People who experienced food insufficiency were about three times more likely to have unmet mental health needs, according to the study. At the same time, people experiencing food insufficiency were also associated with receiving mental health counseling and higher medication use, which was supported by previous studies that also found this connection.

People who are food insufficient and have unmet mental health needs may be stretched thin, especially during the pandemic. Nagata thinks that part of the reason why people who are food insecure or insufficient may be lacking access to mental health counseling is because they may be spending their energy and time on trying to get food. They may have to navigate a complex system of food pantries, community mutual aid groups, and other systems in order to have enough to eat. This may not leave much time or energy left to seek out mental health counseling or services.

Nagata hopes that there continues to be support from policy makers to address mental health issues. Even before the pandemic, many populations were already experiencing food insecurity and they continue to be at risk and are vulnerable. It’s important that health care providers and programs like soup kitchens and food pantries are able to offer resources or awareness about mental health among people who are food insecure, says Nagata.


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Published on Jul 17, 2021