The Link Between Homelessness and Mental Health
Homelessness is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that affects millions of people worldwide. It is not only a lack of adequate housing, but also a state of social exclusion, marginalization, and vulnerability. Homelessness can have devastating impacts on mental health, as well as physical health, well-being, and quality of life. Conversely, mental health problems can also contribute to homelessness, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), homelessness is defined as “[lacking] a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (Verywell Mind, 2021). This can include sleeping on the streets, in shelters, in cars, or in other places not meant for human habitation. Homelessness can be caused by various factors, such as poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse, family rejection, natural disasters, or lack of affordable housing. However, one of the most common and overlooked causes of homelessness is mental illness.
An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. homeless population suffers from severe mental illness, compared to 6 percent of the general public (Psychology Today, 2021). The most prevalent mental disorders among homeless people are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders. These conditions can impair a person’s ability to function in daily life, maintain employment, and sustain social relationships. Moreover, mental illness can increase the risk of experiencing stigma, discrimination, violence, abuse, and exploitation while living on the streets.
Homelessness can also worsen existing mental health problems or trigger new ones. The stress of experiencing homelessness can cause anxiety, fear, depression, sleeplessness, and substance use (Verywell Mind, 2021). Homeless people often face isolation, loneliness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem. They may also lack access to adequate health care, social support, and treatment services. Furthermore, homelessness can expose people to traumatic events, such as physical assault, sexual assault, robbery, or witnessing death (The Homeless Hub, n.d.). These experiences can lead to PTSD or other forms of psychological distress.
Breaking the cycle of homelessness and mental illness requires a comprehensive and holistic approach that addresses both housing and health needs. Research has shown that providing permanent supportive housing (PSH) to homeless people with mental illness can improve their housing stability, mental health outcomes, quality of life, and use of health services (Crisis UK, n.d.). PSH is a model that combines affordable housing with voluntary and flexible support services that are tailored to each individual’s needs and preferences. PSH can help homeless people with mental illness achieve recovery and integration into the community.
Homelessness and mental illness are interrelated and mutually reinforcing issues that affect millions of people around the world. They are also human rights issues that demand urgent attention and action from governments, policymakers, service providers, and society at large. By providing adequate housing and mental health care to homeless people with mental illness, we can not only improve their lives but also reduce the social and economic costs of homelessness.
Crisis UK (n.d.) Homelessness and mental health. Available at: https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/health-and-wellbeing/mental-health/ (Accessed: 29 October 2023).
Psychology Today (2021) The Complex Link Between Homelessness and Mental Health. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-matters-menninger/202105/the-complex-link-between-homelessness-and-mental-health (Accessed: 29 October 2023).
The Homeless Hub (n.d.) Mental Health. Available at: https://www.homelesshub.ca/about-homelessness/topics/mental-health (Accessed: 29 October 2023).
Verywell Mind (2021) How Homelessness Impacts Mental Health. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/homelessness-impacts-mental-health-4783106 (Accessed: 29 October 2023).