Primary Sources: Does Witnessing or Experiencing Victimization Make Street Youth More Likely to Have Depression or PTSD?

A young man looking out a window.

Mental Health Correlates of Victimization Classes Among Homeless Youth“ (abstract). Kimberly Bender, Kristin Ferguson, Sanna Thompson, Lisa Langenderfer. Child Abuse & Neglect, in press (2014).

What it’s about: Researchers from the University of Denver, the City University of New York, and the University of Texas at Austin wanted to know how particular experiences affect homeless young people’s rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and depression. Bender and her colleagues surveyed 601 street youth, ages 18 to 24, who had sought services from agencies in Los Angeles, Denver and Austin. The survey included questions about youths’ experiences witnessing or becoming victims of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse. Questions about other traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, were also on the survey.

Why read it: Young people on the street experience higher levels of depression and PTSD than their peers, according to earlier research. But previous studies didn’t look at whether youth’s mental health needs varied depending on the type and intensity of victimization they’d been through. Knowing more about the relationship between certain types of victimization and particular mental health problems may help people who work with homeless youth provide more targeted screening, assessment, treatment, and prevention.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: The researchers broke surveyed youth into three groups: “low-victims,” “witnesses” and “high-victims.” Low-victims rarely or never experienced or witnessed victimization. Witnesses saw others being physically attacked, murdered or sexually assaulted. High-victims experienced direct verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

More than one-third of youth surveyed were low-victims, nearly a quarter were high-victims, and the remaining 42 percent were witnesses.

Compared to low-victims, witnesses and high-victims were twice as likely to meet criteria for depression. High-victims and witnesses were three times as likely to meet criteria for PTSD.

Bender and her colleagues suggest that youth-serving agencies could, during initial screening, ask about whether and how often youth have witnessed or experienced victimization. Organizations could use the answers to direct low-victims to less costly victimization prevention efforts and other young people to mental health services.

But the researchers caution that young people might hesitate to share sensitive information, which might mean that the number of witnesses and highly victimized youth was underreported in the study. The researchers also note that young people not already connected to services may be more at risk for victimization.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on victimization and exposure to violence and trauma-informed care in our digital library.

Read “Bought and Sold: Helping Young People Escape From Commercial Sexual Exploitation,” a short booklet that helps youth workers better serve exploited young people.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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