As part of the Canadian Mental Health Association 65th Mental Health Week running from May 2nd-8th, this blog covers some of the latest findings about the connection between mental health and homelessness. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Week is “GET LOUD”, encouraging people to speak up against mental illness discrimination and stigma, reflect on the advances in mental health, and share stories to promote public awareness, mobilization and action.
The relationship between mental health and homelessness is well documented. Considerable studies show that people experiencing homelessness are more susceptible to poorer mental health than the general population. The stressful environmental conditions and the difficult situations that homeless people experience daily can trigger mental illnesses or aggravate existing conditions. However, for some, compromised mental health can also precede the onset of homelessness. It is important to note that not all homeless people have a mental illness or concurrent disorders, and not all people who experience mental health issues are homeless or ever at-risk of homelessness.
The connections between mental health and homelessness are complex and further research into the subject is critical. Research provides information on the types of resources, programs, services and public education campaigns needed for policy development. With this in mind, below are some of the known statistics supporting the links between mental health and homelessness and some proposed recommendations for national policy to address some of the systemic problems.
- The Mental Health Commission of Canada reported between 25-50% of the homeless population in Canada suffer from a mental illness(es). More critically, the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness found that well over 50% of the 1054 youth experiencing homelessness in their 2014 National Needs Assessment reported a mental health issue of some kind.
- The 2007 report by the City of Victoria Mayor’s Task Force reported that out of 162 homeless individuals with a substance or mental health condition recorded, 75% had disorders due to psychoactive substance use, 23% had personality disorders, 23% had schizophrenia, 22% had mood disorders and 9% had neurotic/stress related disorders.
- The Canadian Institute for Health Information suggested that mental health and behavioral disorders are the top reasons for people experiencing homelessness to end up in Emergency Departments or inpatient hospitalization.
- In 2005, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimated that 27% or 140,000 people with mental illness live in inadequate housing increasing their risk of homelessness due to employment and educational barriers along with the lack of personal and professional support systems in place.
- According to leading researcher on transitions from psychiatric wards into homelessness, Cheryl Forchuk found that in London, Ontario, 10.5% of individuals were discharged into homelessness from psychiatric wards in a single year.
These figures provide just a quick overview of the links between homelessness and mental health. Further research is required to better understand the needs of diverse people such as population specific studies that focus on the intersecting social identities of women, men, youth, newcomers, racialized people, those who identify as LGBTQ2S, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, and those living in urban or rural settings.
Most importantly, Cheryl Forchuk emphasizes the need of the health, housing, and homelessness sectors to connect with each other to support homeless individuals with mental illness. This is an essential step in uncovering the system gaps while addressing the systemic issues, rather than solely focusing on individual-based problems and solutions. Below are a few federal policy recommendations commonly discussed among stakeholders:
Federal Policy Recommendations:
1. National Mental Health Supportive Housing Strategy
The creation of a National Mental Health Supportive Housing Strategy in partnership with The Mental Health Commission of Canada, provinces/territories, the federal government, First Nations, municipalities and service providers to ensure optimal health outcomes for people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues.
2. National Youth Homeless Strategy
The need for a national youth homelessness strategy to support youth-focused programs and services via a $16.5 million proposed annual financial investment through the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy that would include mental health and addictions supports.
3. Housing First
Investments in Housing First approaches have demonstrated to reduce costs of serving individuals with mental health conditions. Housing First in Canada: Supporting Communities to End Homelessness explores Housing First as an effective and realistic response in serving the homeless population including those with acute and chronic mental health needs.
By “getting loud”, mental health and homelessness advocates are increasing public awareness on the links between mental health and homelessness. However, more work is required and this year’s Mental Health Week “GET LOUD” is one step towards the collective efforts required to best serve people experiencing homelessness and mental health.
To join the conversation on social media, use the hashtags #GETLOUD and #MHW2016. You can also follow the Canadian Mental Health Association on Twitter (@CMHA_NTL) or visit their website (www.mentalhealthweek.cmha.ca) for updates and further information on the campaign.
Photo credit: Canadian Mental Health Association