Many Homeless Youth Experience Traumatic Brain Injury, Study Shows

A young woman with a headache.

Adverse Outcomes Among Homeless Adolescents and Young Adults Who Report a History of Traumatic Brain Injury” (abstract). Jessica L. Mackelprang, Scott B. Harpin, Joseph A. Grubenhoff and Frederick P. Rivera. American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 10 (October 2014).

What it’s about: Researcher Jessica L. Mackelprang and several colleagues wanted to find out the prevalence of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, among homeless youth. They used data from the 2006 and 2009 Wilder Homelessness Study, which focuses on youth in Minnesota. The sample included 2,732 young people recruited from streets, shelters, and drop-in centers.

Why read it: Research shows that TBI is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, the authors write. But, they say, no research before this study has examined how common TBI is among runaway and homeless youth and how it affects their characteristics.

Biggest takeaways from the research: In the study, 43% of youth had a history of TBI. The average age at injury was 15 years old. African American youth were much less likely to have TBI than were white youth.

Compared to youth with no brain injury, young people who reported a history of TBI became homeless at a younger age and went through more episodes of homelessness. Young people with brain injury also were more likely to report the following:

  • Having a lower level of education or being in special education programs.
  • Using alcohol, marijuana, crack or cocaine within the past 30 days.
  • Having a mental illness.
  • Experiencing suicidal ideation.
  • Experiencing childhood physical and sexual abuse, childhood neglect and intimate partner violence.
  • Having been physically or sexually assaulted.
  • Engaging in survival sex.
  • Identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Among youth with TBI, there were differences based on whether youths' brain injuries happened before or after they became homeless. Those injured after becoming homeless had first become homeless at age 13, on average. Those who had a TBI before becoming homeless first became homeless at age 18 and a half, on average.

The researchers note that in the Wilder study, young people were the ones to say whether or not they had TBI, in the answer to a single survey question, and that clinical diagnosis would provide a more objective result.

The researchers suggest that health care admissions procedures screen for homelessness as well as victimization, as homeless youth with TBI might be eligible for disability benefits.

Additional references: Look for more articles on exposure to violence, sexual orientation, mental health, substance use and education for runaway and homeless youth in NCFY’s research library.

Read our Q&A with Matthew Doherty, of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, who discusses the federal push to end youth homelessness by 2020.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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