November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month.
Homeless children are part of an oft-forgotten population despite alarming statistics that show an astonishing 1.6 million children are homeless for some part of every year.
A complex web of sociological and economic factors play a role in homelessness among children, and in a bad economy, joblessness, low wages, and housing costs shouldn’t be overlooked. But there also exists an intimate connection between mental illness and homelessness.
When parents experience mental illness, their children may suffer. Mental illness, particularly among the economically disenfranchised, can interfere with the ability to work, pay bills, and make decisions in the best interests of their families.
People who desire help for their mental illness may be unable to afford it, and the effects can be disastrous for children. Slightly fewer than half of homeless people have a mental illness, significantly higher than in the general population.
Challenges for children
Many older homeless children are runaways, many of whom left home due to parental abuse, neglect, substance dependency or mental illness. Runaways often experience their own mental health issues, also at a much higher rate than in the general population.
One study, for example, found that 74 percent of male runaways and 57 percent of female runaways have symptoms of conduct disorder.
For a family already under stress or experiencing financial problems, a child’s mental illness may be too much to bear. The cost of treatment, the need for constant supervision of the child, or the stress associated with a child’s mental illness can eventually push a struggling family into homelessness.
Cause or effect?
The connection between homelessness and mental illness is a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum in many instances, because homelessness is in itself stressful and traumatic. Children are especially susceptible to trauma-induced mental illness as a result of homelessness.
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