Rhonda Miller, a Toronto resident, knows how difficult it can be to pay for basic necessities.
The 52-year-old woman lives in an apartment with her daughter and two granddaughters, ages nine and six.
Rising rent and food prices mean Miller sometimes has to choose between paying her bills or buying groceries.
“I put the bills down until I can pay them, because I have to get the food,” he told Breaking:.
The Millers rely on welfare and income from some part-time job, but they say it’s not enough to keep up with the rising cost of living.
“It’s very difficult because sometimes the food, what I want [my grandchildren] to eat, I can’t afford it, because of the budget,” Miller said, noting that he worries about the impact on his health.
a new study posted on monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) highlights the clinical impact that lack of access to healthy and affordable food can have on the mental health of young people.
It found that in food-insecure households, children may end up relying more on the health care system to deal with mental health and substance use disorders.
In Canada, the number of people facing food insecurity, meaning they cannot afford an adequate diet, has increased significantly in recent years due to high inflation and fiscal constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The more severe the food insecurity experienced by the household, the more likely children and adolescents were to have contact with health services,” said Kelly Anderson, lead author of the study.
Anderson is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Public Mental Health Research at Western University in London, Ontario.
Previous research on food insecurity has warned of the psychological distress it can cause children as well. But to Anderson’s knowledge, this study is the first to show how food insecurity can likely lead to clinical disorders that put a strain on the system.
Last year, 6.9 million Canadians, including 1.8 million children, faced food insecurity. in ontario, public health data says one in five children lives in a household that struggles to put healthy food on the table.
Unmet basic needs can cause stress: researcher
To analyze the link between diet and mental health, the researchers looked at data between 2005 and 2014 that was related to a community health survey on lack of access to healthy foods.
The study analyzed data from more than 32,000 children, of whom more than 5,200 lived in food-insecure households. The children were between 1 and 17 years of age.
The results showed that children living with food insecurity accessed medical services for mental health or substance use disorders 55% more than those who had access to an adequate diet.
They also had a higher prevalence of emergency department visits and hospital admissions, 74 percent higher, compared to those who were food secure.
More commonly, according to the study, health professionals were contacted to address neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or a diagnosis of mood or anxiety.
“I think it’s an indicator of living in a state of chronic stress, where you’re not sure if even your most basic needs will be met,” Anderson said.
The results say that the children were less likely to have a psychotic disorder, a substance use disorder or engage in deliberate self-harm.
“This is especially devastating reading,” Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said of the study.
“It’s incredibly sad to think of children growing up without access to enough food, without access to enough money to live, day in and day out.”
Bloch’s career focuses on the impacts of poverty on health and the inequalities that exist in access to care.
While he says the study confirms what is already known, the focus on children creates an urgency to address this issue, as children “have little ability to control the social environments in which they grow up.”
Data over 10 years
A key drawback of the CMAJ study is that the data is over a decade old.
Since the data was collected, even more Canadians have become food insecure, especially in recent years. Inflation peaked at 39 last summer.
“We might expect that if we were to repeat the study using more recent data, we would find even stronger effects and more frequent use of mental health and substance abuse services among children,” Anderson said.
The findings also could not be generalized to First Nations communities and people living in remote parts of the province.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist in Toronto, studies food insecurity in indigenous youth. She says this problem affects them “in a big way” and often causes children to lose focus in school and eventually drop out.
“That leads to that cycle of poverty,” he said. “These children may have mental health problems as a result of food insecurity, and food insecurity is a consequence of their mental health problems. So it’s really both.”
Ask for more income aid, food programs
The study researchers say their findings emphasize the need for more initiatives to address food insecurity as a way to reduce strains on the health care system and prevent poor mental health outcomes that can follow a person throughout their lives.
“Many of the risk factors that we think of in the area of mental health are very difficult to change, but [food insecurity] it’s one where there’s something we can do about it,” Anderson said.
There are public policy interventions, such as basic income programs, that can ensure that families have adequate resources to support themselves, he said.
Banerji adds that schools can include nutritious breakfast or lunch programs to help children who may arrive hungry.
Meanwhile, Bloch says the study shows that resources need to go directly to tackling poverty; otherwise, your impacts are likely to end up costing more in the future.
“If we don’t want to pay to avoid those visits, we will pay for the visits themselves and we will pay for all the ramifications of those visits, through the health system, through increased supports in the education system. [and] …in social service systems,” he said.
“We have real choices to make about where we want to spend our money.”