According to a new study by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), adolescents faced with food insecurity are more susceptible to every category of mental illness.
The report comes in the face of rising hunger levels in America, and concludes that hunger is a more significant factor in predicting mental illness than poverty or family education level:
Food insecurity was associated with elevated odds of every class of common mental disorder examined in the study, including mood, anxiety, behavioral, and substance disorders. Food insecurity was associated with adolescent mental disorders more strongly than parental education and income.
The findings suggest that the lack of access to reliable and sufficient amounts of food is associated with increased risk for adolescent mental disorders over and above the effects of poverty. These findings are concerning because recent estimates have suggested that more than 20% of U.S. families with children experience at least some degree of food insecurity. Given the dramatic increases in child poverty in the past decade, these findings argue for expanding programs aimed at alleviating hunger in children and adolescents.
Dr. McLaughlin said of the study, “The fact that food insecurity was so strongly associated with adolescent mental disorders even after we accounted for the effects of poverty and other aspects of socio-economic status suggests that lack of access to reliable and sufficient amounts of food has implications not only for children’s physical health, but also their mental health.”
JAACAP’s study underscores two particularly disturbing — and, as its findings demonstrate, interconnected — trends in America: the evisceration of the mental health safety net and the rising tide of American hunger. Close to 50 million Americans live in a food insecure household, including close to 4 million households with one or more hungry children.
Unfortunately, saddled with a public safety net susceptible to arbitrary budget cuts, such needy American children may have a hard time receiving either the sustenance or health care that they need. 2010 estimates show that while 20 million American children received public school lunch benefits, an additional 10.5 million hungry children did not receive the reduced-price or free lunches they were eligible for. And while the public school system remains young Americans’ primary resource for mental health care, 70 percent of children do not receive the treatment they need.