Depression in SA linked to food insecurity, new report finds

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  • Mental health disorders can be linked to hunger.
  • Adults living with children in homes with food insecurity are more likely to experience depressive symptoms. 
  • Experts recommend job creation, food support, and social grants to help deal with the effects of hunger on mental health.

People experiencing household hunger suffer higher levels of depression than people in homes where there's enough to eat, according to the fifth edition of the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM).

The fifth wave of NIDS-CRAM was released on Thursday. The survey focused on vaccines, hunger, schooling, employment, gender and mental health. Wave 5 was conducted from 6 April to 11 May 2021 with 4 996 participants.

Depressed mood screening

The report found that approximately 28% of South Africans screened positive for depressed mood between April and May 2021, unchanged from surveys conducted between November and December 2020. But in food-insecure households with children, 40% of adults screened positive for depressed mood.

The findings show that these people are not chronically depressed but “are moving in and out of a low mood state”.

The report also found that environmental factors such as employment type, unemployment, loss of household income, and hunger are significantly associated with depression symptoms.

The survey also found that job losses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown were linked to people with signs of depression.

“Becoming newly unemployed (losing a job) was significantly associated with moving from no depressed mood to experiencing depressed mood,” the paper reads.

Hunger and depression

The fifth wave of the NIDS-CRAM also found that the role of hunger in depressed mood increased over time. This suggests that hunger is playing an increasingly important role in determining mental health over time, as people who are hungry most often are the most likely to experience depressed moods. 

The report also shows that between 5% and 8% of participants with children, reporting hunger in the household, indicated that the children are not going hungry. The authors say this could be because adults are shielding children from hunger by ensuring that the food that is available is eaten by the children. This could partly explain why these adults are more at risk of experiencing depressive moods than other adults, "as they are bearing the brunt of the effects of food insecurity in the home".


The authors suggest that immediate relief from the acute drivers of psychological distress must be prioritised. This includes job creation, food support, and social boosters such as grants.

They also recommend that people be educated about the range of psychological experiences they may have as a result of the pandemic. That information about reactions to stress should be widely available to improve the mental health literacy and coping skills of affected people.

*For more Covid-19 research, science and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

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