Nearly every time there’s a public conversation about homelessness, the topic of mental health becomes a major talking point. For instance, the California Policy Lab released data in October 2019 on the prevalence of health problems among homeless populations in Los Angeles, and concluded that mental illness is a key cause of homelessness. Further, unsheltered homeless individuals are more likely to experience mental illness than their sheltered counterparts.
Interestingly, mental illness is often a two-way street when it comes to inadequate housing: Poor mental health can be both a cause and a result of homelessness. That’s because the daily life of a homeless person is typically difficult, riddled with issues ranging from personal safety and social stigma to food insecurity. The effects of homelessness, therefore, can amplify symptoms of poor mental health.
According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, “the stress of experiencing homelessness may exacerbate previous mental illness and encourage anxiety, fear, depression, sleeplessness, and substance use.” Stressors associated with homelessness could account for the population’s disproportionate mental illness numbers. Generally speaking, between 30-35% of homeless individuals have some type of mental illness, and very few receive treatment.
The ubiquity of poor mental health within homeless populations, in the U.S. and around the globe, indicates a dire need for improved public health and affordable housing. Homelessness and unsanitary public conditions are becoming more commonplace, especially in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Is it too late to address the problem, and steer the conversation around homelessness towards mental health?
Environmental Influences on Mental Health
Empirically speaking, there are two distinct types of homelessness: Sheltered and unsheltered. Quality of life may be noticeably higher for those living in shelters or halfway houses, compared to the unsheltered homeless. “Unsheltered” in this context refers to “people whose primary nighttime residence is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people.” This can include city streets, private vehicles, parks, and abandoned buildings.
The unsheltered homeless experience more daily challenges than those who are sheltered. They typically lack regular access to fresh water and basic sanitation facilities, which can lead to both physical and mental health problems. And research indicates that there is a pronounced link between environment and mental health. In fact, living in a toxic environment can negatively impact your physical and mental health, and pave the way for substance abuse and addiction.
To better serve underprivileged populations, including the homeless, on a large scale, we need to emphasize public health as a whole. According to Regis College, mental illness was first deemed a societal problem, rather than an individualized one, beginning in the 19th Century. Rather than turning a blind eye to those in poor mental health who are experiencing homelessness, we should look for ways to keep those populations healthy, which may help break the cycle of homelessness.
Homelessness, Employment, and Disabilities
One way to help those with a mental illness who are homeless is to ensure that they have financial support. Many individuals living with debilitating psychological conditions, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD, cannot sustain regular employment, especially if they aren’t receiving treatment. And without the steady income from a job or gig, homelessness is almost inevitable.
Applying for social security disability benefits may be a viable option for disabled adults who cannot work due to a mental illness. There are two Social Security disability programs in the U.S., known as Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). Neither program covers temporary medical conditions, however.
Homeless individuals who have been recently diagnosed with a mental illness may opt to apply for private supplemental short-term disability insurance to fill the gaps. The application process may seem daunting for those with limited access to computers or legal resources, but there are a number of options. In nearly every community across the U.S., there are programs and non-profit groups that help the homeless to file documents and address other legal concerns.
Combating Homelessness with Comprehensive Services
Disability insurance is just one of the myriad social services that may be available to homeless populations, but the filing process can overwhelm the majority of those living with a mental illness. That’s where social workers and case managers come in. These professionals have a vital job assisting the homeless and ensuring continuity of care in an effort to break the cycle of homelessness.
Social workers can perform their duties in a variety of settings, and should use every encounter with the homeless as an opportunity to assist. According to Ohio University, “social workers serve in emergency rooms, libraries, shelters, jails, and food banks to help those in need.” The institution further reports that, on any given day, an estimated 144,000 homeless people are also living with a mental illness. That gives social workers and other professionals plenty of opportunity to serve their communities.
Reducing the stigma surrounding homelessness should also be part of every social worker’s continuum of care. By helping communities to address the root causes of homelessness, such as inadequate mental healthcare, social workers may begin to better humanize homeless populations in the eyes of those who have roofs over their heads.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author Bio: Sam Bowman writes about people, tech, wellness and how they merge. He enjoys getting to utilize the internet for community without actually having to leave his house. In his spare time he likes running, reading, and combining the two in a run to his local bookstore.
Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/Pb_EG7iUK0s
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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