What 211s and crisis hotlines tell us about community needs

When people need help feeding their families, they may be less likely to prioritize other needs such as mental health. We tracked requests for both needs before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that when requests for food assistance increase, mental health requests decline. We examined 140,754 phone requests for food and 365,146 phone requests for mental health received by 211 helplines in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts and Maine, from January 5th, 2020 to April 17th, 2021. These 211s were selected because they also serve as crisis hotlines in their communities. The chart shows weekly requests for food assistance (blue line) and mental health (orange line), which also includes substance use and crisis intervention. The dramatic increase in food requests at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 corresponded with a decrease in mental health requests by about 1,000 per week. Thus far in 2021, food requests have gradually declined while mental health requests have gradually increased. Studies show a strong link between food insecurity and mental health, so why this inverse relationship? One interpretation of these findings is that for some callers there is a hierarchy of needs, in which feeding oneself and family members supersedes seeking help for other needs such as mental health. Data come from 211 Counts, a daily tracking system of community needs used in 39 states. Web requests were excluded from analyses. Mouse over each line to see total requests for food and mental health assistance week-by-week during the study period.

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