The Traumatic Mental Health Impact of Food Insecurity

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which makes it a great time to talk about the connection between food insecurity and poor mental health, something that we haven’t highlighted nearly enough in the past. Research shows that individuals reporting food insecurity are at an increased risk of mental illness. To make matters worse, this increased risk is magnified in high stress and socially isolated environments – which is exactly the scenario the pandemic has created for thousands of our neighbors.
Sarah, a young mother and food pantry client, shared how this environment has impacted her. “When the pandemic hit, I was seven months pregnant. My husband had a consulting company he was trying to start up. He was also in the reserves, so he made some money that way. We mostly used my college scholarships for our day-to-day needs. When school let out, and the consulting wasn’t providing enough, he started looking for a job. I was often home alone, and it became a constant question of what to make for dinner because I never really had quite enough. The fridge was always close to empty, and our pantry wasn’t much better. It’s humbling not to have enough food. After we brought our baby home, I remember feeling so much fear when breastfeeding didn’t start well because we did not have enough to buy formula. I felt like I was fighting so hard to feel like we were ok that I didn’t have any space left for joy. I just hated opening the fridge. A friend saw how much we were struggling and recommended the food bank, which has helped tremendously. But even now, with a full fridge, thinking about what to make for dinner causes anxiety.”
Sarah isn’t alone in facing increased mental health challenges due to food insecurity. Food insecurity, and the increased mental health risks it brings, are a persistent concern across Utah. 511,000 of our neighbors don’t always know where their next meal will come from. That makes food insecurity one of Utah’s leading health and nutrition issues. Going hungry doesn’t just hurt your stomach; it hurts every aspect of your life. In addition to the negative impact on physical health, food insecurity is associated with cognitive problems, behavioral problems, aggression, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.
Mothers and children, in particular, are at high risk of experiencing traumatic effects on their mental health. Food-insecure mothers have more than two times higher rates of mental health issues than fully food-secure mothers. The odds of behavioral problems among children with food-insecure mothers are double those among children with food-secure mothers. The American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that mothers with school-aged children who face severe hunger are 56% more likely to have PTSD and 53% more likely to have severe depression.
The domino effect of food insecurity on one’s mental health and family relationships wasn’t lost on Sarah, “The stress of not having enough food, what that did to me and my husband…I can’t really even put it into words. We felt so helpless and overwhelmed. My husband felt like it was his fault, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to him about it because I didn’t want him to feel bad, so there was this stress and rift in our relationship when we also had the stress of a newborn baby. We felt so alone. We’re still fighting to come back from that place.”
There is more to good mental health than having enough to eat – but when you can feed yourself and your loved ones, you are in a better place to cope with other mental health challenges. If you are struggling with food insecurity, please know that you don’t have to fight it alone. Utah Food Bank is here to help. Click here to find out about the resources available to you.
If you would like to join us in fighting hunger and making Utah a healthier, happier place, click here to donate now.