As we mark both World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day today, it is crucial that we highlight how closely these two issues are interconnected. Mental health conditions can lead to homelessness and can also prevent those experiencing homelessness from getting back on their feet. If we are to succeed in ending homelessness globally, housing, mental health and employment policies must be invested in, to ensure accessible support is available to all.
One in eight people globally are living with a mental health condition, which may lead to them being at a higher risk of factors leading to homelessness. The Institute of Global Homelessness, part of the Depaul family, highlights factors including difficulty accessing care, difficulty retaining employment and breakdowns in supportive relationships as contributing towards this risk.
Across the Depaul Group, we see this every day. Depaul Ireland and Simon Community NI’s 2023 study, ‘Mental Health and Homelessness,’ found that 68% of respondents had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Of these, 84% had received their diagnosis prior to experiencing homelessness. In Depaul UK’s youth homelessness prevention services, a high number of young people require support with their mental health before other issues can successfully be addressed.
Experiencing homelessness can, unsurprisingly, cause a deterioration of people’s mental health as well as trigger existing mental health conditions. The stress of losing one’s home, combined with the uncertainty, isolation and fear that experiencing homelessness brings, can have devastating consequences that are very difficult to overcome. Just 14% of respondents in Depaul Ireland and Simon Community NI’s study stated that their mental health was good or excellent.
Global research echoes this trend. A 2017 study conducted in Germany found that the rate of mental illness requiring treatment was higher amongst those experiencing homelessness than in the general population.
In my role as Director of International Programmes for Depaul International, I see first-hand how poor mental health and homelessness are connected across the globe, from Slovakia to the USA, France to Ukraine.
In some of the locations we work in, statutory mental health services are few and far between. Alongside this, the stigma associated with mental health can make accessing formal treatment incredibly difficult for those experiencing homelessness. That’s why investing in accessible projects to improve mental health is paramount.
On a visit to Croatia earlier this year, I saw the impact of these projects. During the trip, I had the opportunity to visit H-Garden, Depaul Croatia’s horticulture therapy programme for people sleeping on the streets of Rijeka. The mental stability H-Garden brings can enable participants to make positive changes in other areas of their life.
In New Orleans, Depaul USA’s wellness programme aims to improve the mental health of people who have recently moved into housing. Meditation, art and music therapy helps them to find stability after a period of chronic homelessness. In March, I was lucky to meet some participants after they’d attended a meditation session, who told me how vital this programme had been in helping them to settle into their new surroundings and manage the responsibilities that come with having a home.
It is vital, therefore, that organisations specialising in homelessness are supported to run mental health programmes tailored towards the needs of those they work with. In Ukraine, where I write this from, this has never been more pressing. Currently, a quarter of clients accessing Depaul’s rough sleeping services are veterans of pre-2022 conflicts. As people return to civilian life, provision of mental health support to help them cope with the trauma of conflict is a crucial preventative measure.
However, if we are to end homelessness across the globe, we must go further. As the UN Secretary General’s landmark report into homelessness notes, ‘preventing and addressing homelessness requires consideration of its intersection with other issues.’ Policies targeting mental health, employment and housing must be invested in so that everyone can access necessary care.
Today, as we recognise the link between homelessness and mental health, it is vital that, via tailored programmes and coordinated policies, mental health support is available to all.
Mark Robinson, Director of International Programmes