by Eleanor Miller
The stress of being homeless and in poverty can exacerbate existing mental health issues in both children and adults– but homelessness can also be a root cause of mental health problems. It’s this “chicken or the egg?” problem that continues to worsen the problems of treating mental health issues among the homeless population.
“If they’re not able to get into supportive housing, then they’re much more likely to become the kind of homeless that’s chronic,” said Nancy Downing, director of advocacy at Covenant House, a New York City center for homeless and runaway youth.
U.S. government statistics estimate that approximately 4 to 6 percent of American adults have mental health problems, but that as many as 25 percent of homeless adults do. A 2008 survey found that mental health problems are the third leading cause of homelessness among unaccompanied youth seeking help.
CPR for Mental Health
The first questions James Bolas asks at the monthly meeting of youth shelter administrators in New York City are:
- What’s your name?
- What shelter are your from?
- How many beds do you have?
The third question is key in finding placement for youth that would otherwise be left out on the street. The number of available beds fluctuates day to day, so communication between shelters is essential.
Bolas organizes the meeting and runs the Empire State Coalition, a non-profit that assists shelters by giving staff training and technical support.
Shelters across the city have seen increases in the number of youth with mental illness. Bolas has been working on a CPR-like training manual for dealing with youth displaying early signs of psychological instability and mental health problems.
Below, Bolas talks about training to deal with youth displaying early signs of a mental illness.
By Matt Robinson
“People tend to see homelessness as economic degradation,” said Dr. Yumiko Aratani, an associate research scientist at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “But I think factors that contribute to homelessness and runaways is much more complex.”
Covenant House and other programs have outreach and transitional housing facilities, along with psychological evaluation and treatment, that try to stabilize youth and propel them into jobs and more permanent living situations. But overall, Downing and Aratani agree much more is needed.
“Because those kids tend to report mental health issues before they run away or become homeless, communities need to become more mental health- friendly,” said Aratani. Even more importantly, the resources available to youth need to be more youth-friendly. She cited Covenant House as one example of this type, where youth can feel comfortable.
Downing has worked with homeless and runaway youth for nearly fifteen years and has seen what happens to youth whose mental health problems are left untreated.
“A lot of mental health issues can present themselves in the late teens and early 20s,” she pointed out. “There are just not enough programs to really address them.”
Downing also says that young people often have a distrust of the mental health and homeless shelter system, and are already reluctant to seek help.
“Kids don’t feel like they’re taken seriously, or that adults just throw pills at them,” she said. Like Aratani, Downing says a wider range and number of programs for mental health treatment of youth and children, as well as adults, is a necessary component of initiatives that seek to address homelessness.
“They don’t want to be with adults,” said Aratani. “In a youth-friendly environment, they are more likely to access services.”