According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20-25% of Americans who are experiencing homelessness suffer from a severe mental illness, whereas only 6% of those who are not homeless have a severe mental illness. The relationship between mental health and homelessness is complicated and a two-way system. People who struggle with severe mental illness may find it difficult to uphold tasks that allow them to maintain a steady income and afford housing. Nevertheless, The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation states, “individuals with mental illnesses often find themselves homeless primarily as the result of poverty and a lack of low-income housing.” Furthermore, they state that “mental illness and homelessness can lead to [...] increased levels of alcohol and drug abuse and violent victimization.” While homelessness is commonly recognized as a lack of basic necessities for living, people may overlook how detrimental homelessness can be to one’s mental health.
Homelessness can affect mental health in many ways. For one, it brings about stress in people’s everyday lives. The Bissell Center reveals that the struggle of finding a place to sleep as well as where to get food can cause great stress to those experiencing homelessness; moreover, exposure to substance abuse, crimes, and domestic violence is prevalent amongst the homeless community. Rates of depression amongst those who are homeless are high as well. The American Psychological Association found that 47% of homeless women meet the criteria for having a major depressive disorder, which is double the number of women in general. Furthermore, according to the Canadian Population Health Initiative, “up to 61% of homeless adults experience suicidal thoughts.” The loneliness that comes with homelessness may only serve to grow their depression, as many people who are homeless do not have strong support networks, and approximately one-third of the homeless population spend their entire day alone.
As homelessness can be harmful to one’s mental health, there are resources for those who are homeless and struggling with mental health problems. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides many homelessness programs and resources. In particular, they offer grant programs and services that “work to end homelessness by improving access to treatment and services that support health and wellness.” Their homelessness programs focus on supporting various types of behavioral health treatments and recovery-oriented services, such as treatment for mental health and substance use disorders, peer support services, enrollment in benefits such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and more. Furthermore, they have a Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program in around 500 local organizations across the US that offer services such as screening and diagnostic treatment, habilitation and rehabilitation, referrals for health care, educational services, job training, and housing, substance use disorders treatment and more. In 2017, PATH outreached to over 139,500 people experiencing homelessness and was able to help over 73,000 with their services.
For those who are struggling with their mental health or know someone who is struggling, there are also helplines available where trained individuals will provide free and confidential emotional support to people in need. These helplines are open 24/7 and can help those facing various mental health problems, including those with substance use disorders. For the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For SAMHSA’s National Hotline, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). For the Disaster Distress Hotline, call 1-800-985-5990.
Overall, it is important to be educated and aware of the effects of homelessness on mental health as it helps people better empathize with those who are experiencing homelessness and eliminate any stigmas surrounding both homelessness and mental health.