New research to understand food insecurity in adults with severe mental illness

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29 March 2022

New research, the first of its kind in the UK, is being funded to learn more about adults living with food insecurity and severe mental illness in Northern England.

Often referred to as food poverty, food insecurity is the lack of financial resources needed to ensure that a person has reliable access to enough food to meet their dietary, nutritional, and social needs.

Researchers and clinicians will work alongside people with lived experience of severe mental illness, including schizophrenia and related psychoses, and bipolar disorder, to learn more about their experience of food insecurity and find out how services can support people living with severe mental illness to access healthy, affordable food.

The research will be hosted by Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust (TEWV) in collaboration with Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health (Teesside University & Newcastle University) and Equally Well UK (a collaborative hosted by the Centre for Mental Health). It will be funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the research partner of the NHS, public health and social care, for the NIHR Patient Benefit – Mental Health in the North programme.

The study will last 18 months and will recruit 374 participants to answer a survey and 20 people to be interviewed in person. It will explore the experiences of adults with severe mental illness living in the north west, north east, north Cumbria and Yorkshire and Humber, and the impact of food insecurity on their own weight management.

Additionally, the research will explore the possible approaches that adults with severe mental illness think would be useful to support them to overcome food insecurity. The funding will allow an opportunity to share the results of this novel study nationally and internationally, with a view to changing UK practice and policy to ensure that people with severe mental illness have access to healthy, affordable food.

Jo Smith, consultant dietitian (clinical academic) for Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, said: “I first became aware of the issue of food insecurity for people living with severe mental illness at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. People with severe mental illness told us they were struggling to access enough food, an issue that had become worse during the pandemic. We heard stories of people wanting to stay in hospital for longer because they would not be able to eat on returning home. At that point, I knew that we needed to do something to help.

“I am therefore delighted that we have received this funding to work with people living with severe mental illness and truly understand food insecurity from their perspectives. I hope the results will help services to provide the right support to allow people living with severe mental illness to access enough food to meet their nutritional and social needs”.

Dr Grant McGeechan, senior lecturer in health psychology at Teesside University, said: “This is a really important project as we know that food insecurity has increased during the pandemic, and people with severe mental illness are disproportionately affected. This research project is an important first step in identifying the impact that food insecurity can have on this population. By working co-productively with people with severe mental illness we can also look at how we can reduce food insecurity in this population in the future.”

Research has shown that adults with severe mental illness are particularly affected by food insecurity. The life expectancy of someone living with severe mental illness in the UK is around 15-20 years shorter than someone without a mental illness. This is equivalent to the average life expectancy in the UK in the 1950s. Premature mortality among people with a mental illness is predominantly caused by poor physical health and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Additionally, research has shown that obesity is more prevalent in people with severe mental illness. This could result in an increased risk of preventable illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or certain cancers. Some people with severe mental illness might experience weight loss or malnutrition. It is recommended that people with severe mental illness should be supported to have their physical needs met. This arguably should include access to a healthy, adequate diet, which itself can foster good mental and physical health.

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