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Homeless youth and mental health: What’s next?

Part of an infographic showing situation of homeless youth - how many surveyed, and how many have mental health issues, addictions, or both

by Sean Kidd, Head of the Psychology Service of CAMH’s Schizophrenia Services and Assistant Professor with the University of Toronto Department of Psychiatry

On the same day in February, 14 organizations in 12 Canadian cities surveyed over 1,000 homeless youth.

The findings of this national survey describe what many working in the public service sector grapple with on a daily basis – that mental health and addictions concerns are extremely common among homeless youth in Canada.

Existing research already links mental health and addictions with:

  • Pathways into homelessness
  • Pervasive adversity faced in street contexts
  • Complications linked with pathways out of homelessness

The importance of mental health and addictions is perhaps most evident in the untimely deaths of homeless youth: Suicide and overdose are the most common causes at a rate that greatly exceeds that of other Canadian youth.

>> In depth: Visit The Homeless Hub for more research on homeless youth in Canada

Solutions: Where do we start?

As with most complicated social problems (or “wicked problems” as they are referred to), the best strategy is to find one or more approaches to address one part of the problem in a way that has an impact on all of the others.

Mental health is a good starting point. When you improve mental health, there is a greater likelihood for young people to engage with support systems and positive community activities, and improve their quality of life.

If we are to address youth homelessness, public service providers (health, education, social services and more) need to collaborate with each other.Ideally, this would include system-wide or community/city responses to a problem that everyone agrees needs to be addressed. (See: National mental health strategy)

I have a few ideas for consideration as we use the findings of the survey to move the conversation forward:

1. Minding the gaps

There is increasing attention being paid to transition aged youth in mental health services – recognizing the many problems that can come with the shift from child to adolescent, and adolescent to adult.

We could apply models that are already being used internationally, from teams that focus on supporting this transition – both programs to help young people, as well as improved engagement between different service providers.

We already know the young people who are most at risk of becoming homeless. We also know that most young people are on the margins and run away several times before becoming homeless for a lengthy period. These young people might be the focus of rapid intervention – with various service sectors coming together to support their needs.

The same might be said of young people exiting the streets. It took hard work and resources to get them off the street. Most resources go to immediate crises, but we could invest more in making sure that the young people who made it off the street are able to stay in their new, more stable lives.

2. Recognizing limits and the right service for the right young person

Many homeless youth are coping with severe and complex mental health and addictions concerns. Others have more mild challenges or none at all.

Ideally, in a system operating on collaboration, those providing services to homeless youth would have an effective way of screening to find out who needs to see a specialist, and who needs more basic support.

Some of the more efficient models for this type of work involve time on site by a specialist (such as a Psychiatry Resident supervised by a Psychiatrist in a local hospital).

3. Making the case

Unfortunately as a field, we are disadvantaged by a lack of research into interventions that address mental health and addictions among homeless youth.

There is tremendous value in evaluating interventions that work – like family reunification or service collaborations that are making a difference.

We also need economic analysis. We know that when we support homeless young people with mental health and addiction issues, it means fewer days in expensive prisons and hospitals (not to mention the myriad other social and financial expenses associated with an inadequate response to youth homelessness).

The more we can bring forward specific approaches with evidence and dollar figures, the more effective our advocacy efforts.

These are just a few ideas for addressing the mental health needs of homeless youth - what do you think?

  • What are some other ideas for helping homeless youth in Canada?
  • How can we work with policy makers? 
  • How can we improve collaboration between various public service providers – and with community-based approaches?

section of infographic on youth homelessness
Section of an infographic on homeless youth
Source: The Learning Community

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Marg Publicover #

    It’s time the general public get their heads out of the sand and realize the problem of homeless youth. By educating people about this issue, perhaps they will empathize and not shun these young people who are dealing with multiple issues. They need help, not hinderence.

    May 25, 2014

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