Harper’s Magazine regularly publishes a listing of interesting facts and figures known as the Harper’s Index. In its September issue, a couple of those statistics highlight a stark reality underscoring the links between poverty, hunger and mental health.
Quoting an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by researchers at the University of Michigan, the magazine reported that the percentage decrease of families experiencing depression and anxiety after receiving two rounds of stimulus checks fell by 20 per cent. That number was even higher among families who had reported food shortages: 42 per cent reported a decrease in their stress levels.
Similarly in Canada, we saw the federal government distribute various benefits, including the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) directly to individuals and families impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns in order to stay afloat. Yet the positive impacts those benefits have had on people’s mental health hasn’t received much attention.
Alleviating poverty is too often missing from the conversation on mental health. Yet with over four million people living in poverty in Canada, and more than half of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, economic precarity has real impacts on how people are mentally coping.
Even before the pandemic, an interdisciplinary research team called PROOF published a fact sheet showing the links between food insecurity and mental health. In 2018, it found that adults living in food insecure households were placing a large burden on mental health care services and accounted for 1-in-3 hospitalizations due to mental health problems. Furthermore, children living in food insecure households had greater risks of depression and suicidal thoughts in adolescence and in early adulthood.
The federal government’s National Advisory Council on Poverty released its first report last year, further concluding that not enough data is being collected and analysed to report on various dimensions of poverty, including “children’s well-being, mental health, social inclusion, and security and violence.”
Yet the report points out that racialized people, especially South Asian, Arab and Black Canadians, were most severely impacted by job losses during the pandemic, and are still struggling to regain a foothold in the labour market. Studies have shown that marginalized communities have disproportionately worse mental health than non-racialized populations.