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The severity of food insecurity among people with a mental illness

3 May 2024
By Andy Bell
Andy Bell

Not being able to afford to buy the food you need to live healthily is one of most stark inequalities and injustices people face today in Britain. In one of the world’s wealthiest economies, it is bad enough that 18% of the population is living with food insecurity today.

So when a study conducted by Teesside University and Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, in partnership with Equally Well UK found that half of people with a severe mental illness diagnosis in the north of England were facing food insecurity, the extent of the injustice and how it intersects with mental health inequality was laid bare.

The researchers found that 50% of people with a severe mental illness diagnosis were unable to afford food, and 31% were extremely food poor. Only 36% were food secure.

This is a structural inequality that has far-reaching consequences. People with a mental illness face a 15-20 year life expectancy gap. And the gap is getting bigger. Among the people surveyed in this study, 59% had physical health problems as well as mental illness, and 38% had multiple health problems.

The research was coproduced with experts by experience, which provided vital insights into the impacts of food insecurity on people’s lives and health. It’s clear that the effects are profound. People said they had a poorer diet, leading to either weight gain or weight loss (both of which come with significant risks). They described direct impacts on their mental health – with heightened stress, anxiety and depression, leading to fatigue and exhaustion. Not being able to feed their children was an especial concern for parents with a mental illness.

The extent and severity of food insecurity among people with a mental illness in the UK requires urgent and concerted action. This cannot be ignored.

First and foremost, it’s vital to tackle poverty and its pernicious links with mental ill health. Our report, A mentally healthier nation, set out ways that government could seek to end poverty in the UK. From reforming our social security system to ensuring work pays living wages, it’s possible to tackle many of the causes of poverty and the discrimination that too many people with a mental illness face throughout life.

In mental health services, access to welfare advice, housing support, and Individual Placement and Support employment services can all help to fight poverty (and food insecurity) among people with a mental illness and their families. Too often these are seen as incidental or additional to clinical care. Yet without them, people’s life chances are being constrained and their mental and physical health are put under far greater pressure.

These findings also provide pointers to what people need to enjoy better physical health and mental wellbeing and reduce the life expectancy gap. Information about healthy eating, exercise or ‘lifestyle choices’ alone won’t help people with mental illness living in food poverty. Practical help with getting access to healthy food, low- or no-cost opportunities for physical activity, and support to quit smoking may be more helpful – but with an understanding of the extreme pressure that many people are living with every day to get by.

This blog was originally posted on Equally Well’s website

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