How important is good food for our wellbeing? The Mental Health Foundation has gathered examples of diet being used in social work practice in a new report, Feeding Minds, the impact of food on mental health.
The foundation is campaigning for mental health services to pay more attention to the effect of diet on service users. However, experts in nutrition believe more evidence is needed on food and mental health.
Although improving diet is not yet proven to be a quick fix for treating mental illness, eating well is a good start to enhancing wellbeing. Charity Counsel and Care and Liberal MP Paul Burstow acknowledge this in their recent call for improved nutrition for elderly people in care homes.
Below are details of projects cited in the Mental Health Foundation’s report. More info at www.mentalhealthfoundation.org.uk/feedingminds
Rotherham early intervention team, Doncaster and South Humber NHS trust
The team supports young people experiencing their first episode of psychosis. Staff follow approved national guidelines for treating schizophrenia but, since May 2005, also offer advice on nutrition and exercise.
A nutritionist and physiotherapists work with mental health staff.
The approach is very well received by service users.
The team has found that working on nutrition is much easier in this group than in service users with a long history of mental health problems.
It is too early to evaluate long-term effects on service users but this will follow.
Some mental health professionals are sceptical about the approach.
Magic Breakfast, London
Magic Breakfast exists to make sure no child starts a school day feeling hungry and is therefore unable to concentrate or learn. The project delivers protein enriched bagels and healthy cereals to 13 inner city primary schools in London. Forty children in need per school receive a meal.
Magic Breakfast was created when founder Carmel McConnell discovered that a significant number of young children arrive at school hungry. She began personally delivering breakfast to five schools.
Later she set up Magic Breakfast as a charity in 2003.
The charity does not charge for any of its services to schools and much of its funding is from grants and donations.
Teachers from schools in the scheme report that children concentrate better and their ability to socialise with other children improves after eating the Magic Breakfast food.
Natural Justice, Oxford University
Natural Justice works to find out the causes of antisocial and criminal behaviour.
In 2001 the research charity conducted a trial examining the potential benefits of improved nutrition in a young offenders’ prison. Two hundred and thirty one young adults were either provided with the daily recommended amounts of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, or placebos, and then evaluated for antisocial behaviour. Offending rates of those receiving the nutrients were reduced by an average of 35 per cent.
Natural Justice has its origins in Cumbria when director, Bernard Gesch, noted the poor diets of young offenders he worked with. In 1998 he convinced local magistrates to let him test the effects of diet on a juvenile offender who was resistant to rehabilitation. The result was a swift improvement in the young offender’s behaviour. The scheme was expanded to involve around 20 young people, with the approval of the courts. Some of the young offenders’ behaviour dramatically improved after their diets were adjusted.
Natural Justice is now based at Oxford University and survives on scarce resources.
Hyperactive children’s support group
The group raises awareness and disseminates information about the connection between a child’s diet and behaviour. It supports parents of children who are hyperactive or diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and professionals working with the children.
It was set up in 1977 by Sally Bunday, whose son’s hyperactivity improved in response to changes in diet.
Parents credit the group with many improvements in children’s behaviour. However, the group alleges that mainstream medicine does not. It reports that when parents take hyperactive children to their GP, little mention is made of the link between diet and behaviour.
The group receives a small amount of funding from the government but the growth of free information on the internet has contributed to it struggling to survive.
Food and mood project
Website to help people explore the relationship between diet, nutrition, and emotional and mental health. Backed by mental health charity Mind.