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Healthy Minds Healthy College

The link between food insecurity and mental health

January 9, 2014


Rebecca puts together a package of food for a student at the RRC Campus Food Bank. Photo credit: Jessica Botelho-Urbanski.

Rebecca Trudeau is a second-year student in the Community Development/Community Economic Development program. She is Red River College’s food bank coordinator, an active volunteer in the community and was the recipient of the 2014 Premiere of Manitoba Volunteer Service Award.

Food insecurity

There is a direct link between mental health and ‘food insecurity’ (not having regular access to food). This is because many people with mental illnesses continue to be stigmatized when applying for jobs or in the workforce, making it difficult for them to gain employment or hold down a steady job. In 2013, approximately 90 per cent of Canadians with a diagnosed mental illness were unemployed leaving many of these people to rely on a food bank.

Any registered dietician will tell you that mental health is impacted by diet. When people who are unemployed are not eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet, their mental health is also affected in a negative way, perpetuating a negative situation, especially for people vulnerable to mental illness. Being food insecure also generates feelings of depression, guilt, shame, anxiety, stress, anger, and decreased energy — all without a doubt having a negative impact on overall mental health.

My experience

I have quite a bit of experience working with people dealing with mental health issues and food insecurity. This past summer I worked at Food Matters Manitoba. I also run Red River College’s Campus Food Bank and am a long-time volunteer turned employee with Winnipeg Harvest.

Growing up, I also experienced firsthand the impact mental health and unemployment has on food insecurity. Many of my family members have been diagnosed with mental health issues including my mother who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and has substance abuse issues. I grew up on social assistance, which had a significant impact on my family’s ability to access nutritious food on a regular basis. In fact, there were times where we didn’t have any food at all.

Typically, a single mother on social assistance receives about $12,300 per year, which is supposed to cover rent, utilities, transportation, personal care items such as clothes and food. However, there is often little money left over for food after paying bills. This means many Manitobans have to turn to Winnipeg Harvest — the main distribution centre for more than 380 agencies in Manitoba. These agencies supply food to approximately 64,000 clients every month — 47 per cent of them children. Other clients include seniors, individuals with physical disabilities, newcomers, single mothers, and highest of all, people with mental health issues.

Changing our perceptions

Even though one in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives, there is still a stigma attached to having a mental health issue, especially for people who are unemployed. We need to change these negative attitudes and perceptions because with understanding and the right help, people with mental health issues can build skills, confidence and contribute greatly to our society.

Red River College helps about 70 families every two weeks at its food banks located at the Notre Dame and Exchange District Campuses. The people accessing this food could be your classmates, friends or the student sitting next to you in the library.

So before you make assumptions about someone with a mental health issue or who visits a food bank, I ask you to consider about how complex their situation is. I ask you to please be considerate and show kindness because most of the time, they are just doing the best they can.

More information:

Please visit RRC’s website to find out more about the Campus Food Bank.