Toronto resident Rhonda Miller knows how difficult it can be to provide for basic necessities.
The 52-year-old 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 leave the bills so I can pay them, because I have to get food,” she told CBC News.
The Millers rely on social assistance and income from some part-time jobs, but they say it’s not enough to keep up with the rising cost of living.
“It’s really hard because sometimes food, that’s what I want [my grandchildren] “I can’t afford it because it’s on a budget,” Miller said, indicating that she worries about the impact on their health.
New study Posted Monday In the Canadian Medical Journal (CMAJ) highlights the clinical impact that lack of access to affordable, healthy food can have on the mental health of young people.
It found that in food-insecure families, children can end up relying more on the healthcare system to deal with mental health and substance abuse disorders.
In Canada, the number of people facing food insecurity — meaning they cannot afford an adequate diet — has increased dramatically in recent years due to high inflation and financial constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The more severe a family’s food insecurity is, the more likely children and adolescents are to contact health services,” said Kelly Anderson, lead author of the study.
Anderson Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Public Mental Health Research at Western University in London, Ontario.
Previous research on food insecurity Beware of the psychological distress it can cause to children as well. But as far as Anderson is aware, this study is the first to show how food insecurity can potentially lead to clinical disorders that stress the system.
last year, 6.9 million Canadians, including 1.8 million childrenThey face food insecurity. in ontario, Public health data He says that one in five children living in a home struggles to put healthy food on the table.
Unmet basic needs can cause stress: Int
To analyze the association between food and mental health, the researchers looked at data between 2005 and 2014 that were related to a community health survey about lack of access to healthy foods.
The study looked at information from more than 32,000 children, more than 5,200 of whom lived in food-insecure families. The ages of the children ranged from 1 to 17 years.
The results showed that children with food insecurity received medical services for mental health or substance use disorders 55 percent more often than those who received an appropriate diet.
They also had a higher prevalence of emergency department visits and hospital admissions – 74 per cent more – than those who were food secure.
Most commonly, the study said, health professionals were contacted for treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or for a diagnosis of mood or anxiety.
“I think it’s an indication of living in a state of chronic stress, where you’re not sure whether even your basic needs are going to be met,” Anderson said.
The results indicate that the children were less likely to develop a psychotic disorder, a substance use disorder, or to engage in intentional self-harm.
“It’s a particularly devastating read,” said Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, of the study.
“It’s very sad to think of children growing up without getting enough to eat, without getting enough money to live on, on a daily basis.”
Bloch’s career focuses on the health effects of poverty and inequality in access to care.
While he says the study confirms what is already known, the focus on children creates an urgency to address this problem, because children “have little ability to control the social environments in which they grow up.”
Data older than 10 years
The main drawback to the CMAJ study is that the data is more than a decade old.
Since the data was collected, more Canadians have become food insecure, especially in recent years. economic inflation He reached his highest level in 39 years last summer.
“We might expect that if we repeat the study with more recent data, we would find stronger effects and more frequent use of mental health services and drug use among children,” Anderson said.
Nor can the results be generalized to First Nation communities and people living in remote areas of the province.
Dr. Anna Banerjee, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist in Toronto, studies food insecurity in Indigenous youth. She says this problem affects them in a “major way”, often leading to a loss of focus in school and eventual dropout.
“It leads to this cycle of poverty,” she said. “These kids can have mental health issues as a result of their food insecurity, and their food insecurity is a consequence of their mental health issues. So it’s really both ways.”
Calls for more income support and food programs
The study’s authors say their findings underscore the need for more initiatives to address food insecurity as a way to reduce pressures on the healthcare system and prevent poor mental health outcomes that can follow a person throughout their lives.
“Many of the risk factors we think about in mental health are difficult to change, however [food insecurity] is one of the things we can do about it,” Anderson said.
She said there are public policy interventions, such as basic income programmes, that can ensure families have sufficient resources to support themselves.
Banerjee adds that schools could include nutritious breakfast or lunch programs to help children who may arrive hungry.
Meanwhile, for Bloch, he says, the study shows that resources must be allocated directly to dealing with poverty—otherwise its effects will likely end up costing more in the future.
“If we don’t want to pay to prevent those visits, we will pay for the visits ourselves, and we will pay for all the ramifications of those visits, through the health system, through increased subsidies in the education system.” [and] …in social service systems.”
“We have real choices to make about where we want to spend our money.”