Primary Sources: How Much Does Length and Frequency of Youth Homelessness Affect Young People's Mental Health?

A homeless young person sitting on a bench.

Psychiatric Disorders, High-Risk Behaviors, and Chronicity of Episodes Among Predominantly African American Homeless Chicago Youth” (abstract). Anne L. Castro, Erika L. Gustafson, Ashley F. Ford, Jennifer P. Edidin, Scott J. Hunter and Niranjan S. Jarnik. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, Vol. 25, No. 3 (August 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers wanted to know whether mental health disorders, substance abuse and high risk behaviors were related to how soon, how long and how often young people were homeless. They recruited 61 homeless youth ages 18 to 21, most of whom were African-American, from two shelters in Chicago. Each participant completed a questionnaire. In addition to answering questions about age, family background, race, ethnicity and gender, young people also reported:

  1. Age they first became homeless
  2. Number of times they had been homeless in the past year
  3. Length of the longest time they had ever been homeless
  4. Length of time they had been homeless most recently
  5. Number of times had they been homeless so far

The youth also answered questions about sexual risk behaviors and substance use patterns.

Why read it: In the United States, an estimated 1.6 to 2.0 million young people under 25 are without stable housing every night, the authors write. According to other studies, approximately half of homeless youth do not find stable housing before they reach adulthood. Knowing more about how young people’s experiences of homelessness relate to their mental health, substance use and sexual behaviors, the authors say, would allow service providers to provide the specialized support services youth need to transition to permanent housing.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Castro and her colleagues learned that young people in the study first became homeless at an average age of 16.4 years. The researchers found that the younger a person was when he or she first became homeless, the more often they would experience homelessness and for longer periods of time. Being homeless for a longer time also correlated with the number of mental health diagnoses a young person received. Specifically,

  • The more times a young person had been homeless, the more likely they were to experience suicidality, manic episodes, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance abuse and psychotic disorder.
  • The younger a person became homeless for the first time, the more likely he or she was to be diagnosed with a major depressive episode, panic disorder with agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse or dependence.

Researchers suggest that intake workers and case managers should use age of first homeless episode, number of homeless episodes and length of time per homeless episode to enable rapid screening of young people for mental health and substance use disorders. Having this information would make it possible to direct homeless youth to the specific services they need to achieve stability, the authors write.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on homeless youth, mental health problems and substance abuse in our digital library.

In creating the questionnaire for this study, the authors used five questions from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey about tobacco, cannabis, alcohol, hard drug use and sex behaviors.

We summarized three studies looking at risk behaviors and homeless youth showing that youth workers need to ask young people about their experiences to better target interventions.

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