Connecting Mental Health and Hunger

Posted on August 19, 2015 by Leah Shelton
Leah Shelton, ELCA Advocacy

One in five  children in the United States experience a mental disorder each year. That’s nearly 16 million children every year. Mental disorders can be extremely debilitating, leading to isolation, self-harm, and a life-long stigma of weakness and danger. These effects, if not treated in childhood, can affect the child’s entire life.

With that statistic in mind, now consider that only 20% of childhood mental disorders are treated. This is the 20-20 effect: 20% of children have a mental disorder and 20% are treated. Treatment exists for such a small number for many reasons, including a scarcity of pediatric and adolescent psychiatrists and the cost of treatment. Childhood mental health awareness and treatment in the United States is detrimentally dismal.

We have a problem.

What is causing mental illness in children? There is an innumerable set of influences, but among the many risk factors is poverty. Recent evidence points specifically to poor nutrition. While there is not yet evidence of a causal relationship (lack of/poor nutrition causing mental disorders), it is evident that there is a definite relationship between child nutrition and mental health. The grips of poverty force families to go hungry, and without proper nutrition children may have an increased risk of developing a mental disorder or worsening a pre-existing one.

Childhood nutrition in the U.S. is as bleak as mental illness: 1 in 5 children in the U.S. do not know where their next meal will come from. Approximately 16 million U.S. children are food-insecure.  Although I have never experienced the kind of anxiety that comes from searching for food, during my time interning at the ELCA’s Advocacy Office in Washington D.C., I’ve witnessed advocates from across the country telling their members of Congress stories about the constant anxiety they and their friends suffer because of food insecurity. Their stories opened my eyes to both the desperation of hunger and the vital role that public policy must play to keep them from starvation.

The federally funded National School Lunch Program makes possible school breakfasts and lunches, which these children depend on as a consistently reliable source of nutrition. While it may appear as if these hungry children will receive at least one meal a day for the rest of their school years, Congress has the power to change this, for better or worse. The National School Lunch Program and other programs, such as The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), are set to expire at the end of September. ELCA Advocacy is calling upon Congress to reauthorize  these programs in order to continue providing nutrition for low-income families and children. So far, Congress has not reauthorized these programs, leaving 16 million children with food-insecurity.

By defunding programs such as the National School Lunch program, Congress is essentially sweeping the carpet out from under the feet of these children and telling them that their lives are not worth the $16 billion school breakfasts and lunch cost, combined. Even in terms of money, compared to the $247 billion childhood mental healthcare costs each year, funding nutrition programs is much more fiscally feasible and responsible. Even if the programs are reauthorized, special interest groups are lobbying Congress to neutralize federal nutrition standards for these programs. Students, some of whom find school lunch to be their only meal of the day, could find lower health standards in their food and continue this long term problem.

Why would Congress remove a program which is so closely linked to a risk factor for mental illness when the rates for both child nutrition and mental illness are oppressive? This  would be detrimental, not only for children like the ones I met, but also for the federal budget. It is moral, fiscal, rational, and imperative that Congress fund child nutrition programs.

ELCA Advocacy has long supported child nutrition programs and intervening in the cycle of hunger and poverty which mental illness is so frighteningly connected to. As Lutherans, we must raise our voices to this injustice and ask Congress to stand by Matthew 23:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” By doing this, we stand by our challenge to ourselves to “become good stewards of … physical and mental health by attending to preventive care, personal health habits, diet, exercise, and recreation” (ELCA Health Care Statement).

*Check out  how Lutherans are getting involved in healthcare initiatives at Lutheran Services in America.

**For more information on other public policy initiatives for preventing common mental disorders click here.

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