Researchers Explore How Different Types of Trauma Affect Homeless Youths’ Mental Health

A young woman looking serious.

A host of studies have found that homeless youth have high rates of mental health problems, and many have experienced more than one type of trauma, at home and on the streets. Two recent studies seek to add to our understanding of the types of psychiatric problems youth experiencing homelessness face and the relationship of these problems to past traumas.

Violence at Home and on the Street

Led by Kimberly Bender of the University of Denver, a new study of 601 street youth in Denver, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, looks at young people’s experiences of homelessness (where they lived and how long), the types of abuse they experienced at home and after leaving, and their mental health symptoms. Youth were 18 to 24 years old and had spent at least two weeks away from home in the month before their interviews.

Most youth (79 percent) had experienced more than one kind of abuse (emotional, physical or sexual) at home. Fourteen percent had been abused in only one way at home. On the street, 28 percent of youth have been victims of multiple types of assault or violence. About a third had experienced only one type of victimization on the street, and more than a third had experienced none.

Victims of childhood abuse were more likely to have posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, than were victims of street crimes. Victims of street crimes were more likely to abuse substances than were victims of childhood abuse. Both types of victimization were strongly associated with depression.

The researchers expected street assaults and violence to exacerbate the relationship between childhood abuse and mental health problems, but that was not what they found.

“It may be that experiences of multiple childhood maltreatment, in this population, are so detrimental that they are not exacerbated by additional experiences of street victimization,” Bender and her colleagues write, though they urge further study of the issue.

The Impact of Specific Traumas

Another study, led by Carolyn Wong of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, surveyed 389 Los Angeles youth about their experiences of homelessness and of violence, their mental health, their substance use and abuse, and the services they had used. Youth were 13 to 25 years old and had been “homeless or precariously housed” in the past year.

Experiences of abuse and violence were common, before and after youth became homeless. About 70 percent of young people reported they had grown up with drugs and violence in the home. Nearly 60 percent had been emotionally abused or neglected at home and about half had been physically abused. About one-third had been sexually abused. Once on the streets, 37 percent had been physically assaulted, 27 percent had been harassed, 22 percent had been abused by an intimate partner, and 13 percent had been sexually assaulted.

Wong and her colleagues found that youth’s experience of sexual abuse made them significantly more likely to develop depression and slightly significantly more likely to develop PTSD symptoms. These associations held after the authors accounted for youth’s experiences on the street, demographics and factors linked to mental health, such as incarceration.

Some researchers have found young people’s compounded histories of various types of abuse or victimization (their experience of “complex trauma”) to be the best predictor of their likelihood of developing specific mental health symptoms. This study found just as strong a connection between specific types of trauma youth had gone through at particular times in their lives and symptoms. Like Bender and her colleagues, Wong writes that traumatic experiences early in a young person's life may more strongly contribute to PTSD symptoms than more recent traumatic events.

Read the Studies

Multiple Victimizations Before and After Leaving Home Associated With PTSD, Depression, and Substance Use Disorder Among Homeless Youth” (abstract). Kimberly Bender, Samantha M. Brown, Sanna J. Thompson, Kristin M. Ferguson and Lisa Langenderfer. Child Maltreatment (online, December 2014).

“The Impact of Specific and Complex Trauma on the Mental Health of Homeless Youth” (abstract). Carolyn F. Wong, Leslie F. Clark and Lauren Marlotte. Journal of Interpersonal Violence (online, November 2014).

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

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