Food Insecurity and Mental Illness

Our guests at Bread & Roses have several compounding circumstances that have led them to walk through our doors, ranging from job insecurity to physical health issues, housing instability, addiction, and systemic oppression. One of the most prominent struggles our guests face is mental illness. Many lack access to the resources to treat their illnesses or lack diagnoses altogether, often causing them extreme difficulty seeking gainful employment or permanent housing. Because of this, many of our guests are at a heightened risk for violence and abuse. Self-medicating is an unfortunate path many choose to cope with their circumstances.

There is a chicken and egg conflict when it comes to mental illness and hunger. Which comes first? The answer is both. The stress of hunger can cause mental illness, mental illnesses can cause people to go hungry, and the lack of proper nutrition delays physical, mental, and behavioral development. Most of the research I was able to find attributed increased levels of mental illness to the release of a nearly debilitating amount of stress hormones triggered by food insecurity.

According to this Reuters article published in February, mental health issues among teenagers were 2.3 times more likely to be present if the teen lived in a home with food insecurity. That adds up to nearly 29% of adolescents who are food insecure presenting with a mental illness (in comparison with kids who are food secure at 9%). The mental health concerns range from hyperactivity to disciplinary issues, anxiety, and aggression.

These issues, hunger and mental illness, are likely to follow kids into their adulthood. A study of young adults showed that food insecurity coexisted with increased suicidal ideation, depression, and substance abuse. Single mothers are especially vulnerable to depression if experiencing hunger, according to this article. In addition, single mothers are also more likely than others to live in poverty and experience hunger. This has a direct effect on the development of the children in their care.

Mental health services in the Merrimack Valley are sadly lacking, especially for those living in poverty and outdoors, who would have little access to or knowledge of such services. Housing options are also restricted, particularly for individuals with past convictions and who may be caught in the throngs of substance abuse. Lawrence has limited shelters and stable housing is all but impossible to obtain for those who have past evictions.

As a community, we need to educate ourselves more thoroughly on mental illness and the causes of poverty and hunger and spread our awareness. We must advocate on the behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves and petition our community leaders to make these issues – which are truly human rights issues – a priority. Curbing hunger will curb mental illness, and effectually reduce the levels of poverty and substance abuse in our area.

These overlapping issues trap many of our guests in an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Their parents and their parents’ parents showed up at our front door time and time again. While we can ease the symptoms of poverty and mental illness with a warm meal and a welcoming smile, attacking the root causes is more difficult. There is so much work to be done on an institutional level to fight the abuses of marginalized groups of people and making change starts with small groups of dedicated, passionate individuals like the volunteers and donors we have at Bread & Roses.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 237 8255
  • SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: 1 877 726 4724
  • Massachusetts Substance Abuse Information & Education Helpline: 1 800 327 5050



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