Updated: Apr 7, 2022
Have you ever wondered about the relationship between homelessness and mental illness?
Is it that homelessness exacerbates an existing mental illness or does being homeless make you mentally ill?
Often the people we notice on the streets and refer to as homeless, stand out for various reasons.
One woman we work with speaks a mix of different languages that come out in incoherent streams. If you ask others on the street who she is they’ll tell you she’s extremely intelligent, once worked at a college, but none of them have any idea what she’s now saying.
Another man stands on a corner downtown, staring blankly ahead. He gets skinnier by the day. Sometimes he’s holding on to his pants keeping them in place, other times he has forgotten and they’ve fallen around his ankles. He stands there. We don’t know what he is looking for, waiting on, or seeing. Occasionally he’ll give one or two-word answers and even repeat our names. He’s a target for abuse, vulnerable, and alone.
Because these are the individuals who catch our eyes we don’t always notice the mother sitting on the park bench with her kids. Our brain tells us she’s waiting for the bus.
We don’t see the 20-year-old walking down the street looking for work. He’s clean, able-bodied, and fits into the crowd around him.
Is there a relationship between homelessness and mental illness?
Not all homeless are mentally ill. However, there does seem to be a loop between mental illness and homelessness.
A recent study published in the Colorado Coalition For the Homeless found that homelessness can lead to several mental health disorders.
While these disorders aren’t necessarily unique to people who are homeless, some of them can be exacerbated by the conditions experienced by those without safe and secure housing.
The study also found that these disorders can often persist even after an individual has gotten back on their feet and secured housing again.
Keep reading because we’ve pulled together a few of the findings and followed them up with actionable steps you can take to help individuals experiencing homelessness.
With the right resources and a strong community, we can help reduce the prevalence of mental health disorders in this vulnerable population.
Living on the street can be stressful
Imagine not knowing where your next meal will come from, or even if you’ll survive the freezing temperatures tonight? These are only two factors that may affect an individual experiencing homelessness.
What would your life look like if the next 24 hours were filled with uncertainty, fear, and the lack of basic living essentials?
In March of 2020, COVID-19 had all of us staring into an uncertain future. Imagine that same feeling but on the street, without shelter and year after year.
As a nation, we’ve started paying attention more to mental health stigmas, how it affects our youth and the inaccessibility to mental health care for vulnerable communities.
There is a shortage of mental health workers as we exit the pandemic. We are all feeling the strain, and yet those who are experiencing homelessness have fewer avenues than those of us who entered this new era with stability, a mortgage, and community support.
A 2015 study of people experiencing homelessness in Denver found that even one night on the street can have a devastating impact on an individual’s mental health and well-being.
Researchers surveyed 298 adults living on Denver streets, finding that 68 percent reported experiencing some form of severe mental illness—the most common diagnoses were post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.
The number rose to 89 percent among those who had been homeless for over three years.
Having slept on the street at least once in their lives, over 70 percent of participants experienced some kind of physical or sexual assault while homeless—another risk factor for developing a serious psychiatric disorder.
“Individuals with mental illnesses often find themselves homeless primarily as the result of poverty and a lack of low-income housing. The combination of mental illness and homelessness also can lead to other factors such as increased levels of alcohol and drug abuse and violent victimization that reinforce the connection between health and homelessness.” - Brain & Behaviour Research Foundation
Unfortunately, the lack of both mental health care and sustainable housing for vulnerable communities becomes a continuous feed-back loop.
Homelessness and Mental Health Disorders
There is a common misconception that only drug addicts or alcoholics become homeless.
Unfortunately, a growing number of families are becoming homeless due to job loss, unaffordable rent, and other causes that lead to permanent or temporary housing situations.
It’s important to note that substance abuse doesn’t necessarily cause homelessness. In fact, many people who become homeless have no history of addiction but are suffering from untreated or undiagnosed psychiatric disorders.
The short-term effects of living on the streets include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations (common among schizophrenic homeless), and even suicide attempts.
The longer a person is homeless, studies show an increase in severe clinical symptoms such as depression, PTSD, and psychosis.
Ways to help those who are homeless
It’s common for individuals to experience a wide range of emotions when forced to live in situations like homelessness. Without proper care or resources, anyone can find themselves facing homelessness.
Fortunately, there are many organizations dedicated to these individuals.
Here are some ways you can help those experiencing homelessness in Tampa, FL:
Donate – Donations provide people living without a home with immediate assistance such as food, water, and hygiene products. Many organizations allow donations by mail or online. We do :-) We take monthly commitments, one-time donations, and have an Amazon Wishlist that we update regularly to meet the individual needs of those we work with.
Click for the details→ Take Action - Donate Today
Volunteer – Whether it is through working directly with homeless individuals or simply donating your time and skills, volunteering offers another way to make an impact on people experiencing homelessness.
Virtual volunteer opportunities are also available. Contact us for details.
Raise Awareness – One of the best ways to raise awareness about homelessness is to spread awareness about homelessness and the causes that create it. This means informing family members, friends, and coworkers about what makes someone homeless and how they could easily contribute towards providing support.
One easy way to do this → follow us across social media
join the conversation and reshare our content
Get Involved – If you don’t feel comfortable contributing financially to organizations, get involved in whatever way you feel comfortable. You could start your own fundraiser at work or school that focuses on collecting essentials for homeless individuals rather than money. As long as you do something, anything at all, you will be making a difference—so never think small!
The Bautista Project currently has 7 programs that work together and target various in order to bring an end to chronic homelessness.