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Children and adolescents in food-insecure homes had more mental health visits

A new study published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) has found that children and adolescents living in food-insecure households had a 55% higher frequency of physician visits for mental health reasons than those with adequate food supplies.

The study looked at population health survey data from the Canadian Community Health Survey on 32,321 children and adolescents linked to Ontario health care data. Researchers used a validated measurement tool to categorize household food access as food-secure, marginally food-insecure, moderately food-insecure, or severely food-insecure.

Of the total, 5,216 (16.1%) were living in food-insecure, 1,952 (6.0%) in marginally food-insecure, 2,348 (7.3%) in moderately food-insecure and 916 (2.8%) in severely food-insecure households.

Researchers also found that children and adolescents in food-insecure homes had a 74% higher prevalence of past-year acute care visits, defined as an emergency department visit or hospitalization for a mental or substance use disorder. The most common visits were for neurodevelopmental disorders, mood and anxiety disorders followed by social problems and other mental health issues.

The authors of the study say that the findings are concerning and that they highlight the need for strong public policy to support families who face food insecurity. They also say that public mental health strategies must be improved and targeted to youth specifically to help reduce the strain on the public mental health system.

The relationship between food insecurity and mental health issues is complex, but it is likely that food insecurity contributes to mental distress among those living in difficult circumstances. Reducing food insecurity may help alleviate some mental health issues for children and youth.

Clinicians should be aware of the link between food insecurity and mental health, and they should advocate for policies that support families who are struggling to make ends meet. They should also screen patients for financial strain and take steps to ensure that those identified as such receive their financial entitlements.

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