Study Finds 1 in 10 Adolescents Living in Households with Food Insecurity Have Poor Mental Health
Investigators at CHAM analyzed data from a nationally representative sample, the 2007 wave of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten, which included 8,600 students aged 12 to 16 years old. Caregivers of the adolescents responded by phone to a series of questions that assessed the household's food situation (The US Household Food Security Scale) and questions that are typically used as a screening tool to identify likely cases of mental health disorders (the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire).
Adolescents who experienced household food insecurity — a limited or uncertain availability of nutritional food — were twice as likely, according to their caregivers, to have emotional problems, conduct problems (a range of destructive behaviors that could include bullying, stealing, destroying other people's property, truancy, and initiating physical fights), have hyperactivity, and struggle with peer relationships.
"Food insecurity is not a risk factor for mental health that pediatricians typically address, but given our findings it is a topic we should consider discussing during our interactions with families," says Ruth E. K. Stein, MD, coauthor, an attending physician at CHAM, and a professor of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "We recommend keeping food insecurity in mind so we can better connect patients with the resources required to improve their home lives and overall health."
The researchers suggest exploring public health interventions aimed at reducing household food insecurity, for example government-assisted supplemental nutrition programs, and assessing their implications for adolescent mental health.
"Our study adds to the growing understanding of the adverse health risks experienced by children and adolescents living with food insecurity," says coauthor Elizabeth Poole-Di Salvo, MD, MPH, an assistant attending pediatrician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and an assistant professor of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College. "As more than 15 million children in the United States under the age of 18 live in households with food insecurity, this is a public health issue of utmost importance."