New research, which is the first of its kind in the UK, is being funded to learn more about adults living with food insecurity and severe mental illness (SMI) in Northern England. Often referred to as food poverty, food insecurity is the lack of financial resources needed to ensure that a person has reliable access to enough food to meet their dietary, nutritional, and social needs.

Researchers and clinicians will work alongside people with lived experience of SMI, including schizophrenia and related psychoses, and bipolar disorder, to learn more about their experience of food insecurity and find out how services can support people living with SMI to access healthy, affordable food. The research will be hosted by Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust (TEWV) in collaboration with Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health (Teesside University & Newcastle University) and Equally Well UK. It will be funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the research partner of the NHS, public health and social care, for the NIHR Patient Benefit – Mental Health in the North programme.

The study will last 18 months and will recruit 374 participants to answer a survey and 20 people to be interviewed in person. It will explore the experiences of adults with SMI living in the north west, north east, north Cumbria and Yorkshire and Humber, and the impact of food insecurity on their own weight management. Additionally, the research will explore the possible approaches that adults with SMI think would be useful to support them to overcome food insecurity. The funding will allow an opportunity to share the results of this novel study nationally and internationally, with a view to changing UK practice and policy to ensure that people with SMI have access to healthy, affordable food.

Jo Smith, consultant dietitian (clinical academic) for Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, said: “I first became aware of the issue of food insecurity for people living with SMI at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “People with SMI told us they were struggling to access enough food, an issue that had become worse during the pandemic. We heard stories of people wanting to stay in hospital for longer because they would not be able to eat on returning home. At that point, I knew that we needed to do something to help. I am therefore delighted that we have received this funding to work with people living with SMI and truly understand food insecurity from their perspectives. I hope the results will help services to provide the right support to allow people living with SMI to access enough food to meet their nutritional and social needs”.

Dr Grant McGeechan, senior lecturer in health psychology at Teesside University, said: “This is a really important project as we know that food insecurity has increased during the pandemic, and people with SMI are disproportionately affected. This research project is an important first step in identifying the impact that food insecurity can have on this population. By working co-productively with people with SMI we can also look at how we can reduce food insecurity in this population in the future.”