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Homelessness and its Psychological Toll

Updated: Jun 5

It does not come as a surprise to most that mental health conditions impact one’s whole life. To those who do not have proper access to health care, or who are unable to seek help, such conditions can take a heavy toll on jobs, families, and physical health. The fact is: we live in a society that makes it hard for people to speak up and reach out for help—especially minorities from marginalized communities.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year. Although the incidence of mental health illnesses among People of Color (POC) is comparable to those among White people, People of Color are more likely to experience longer-lasting disorders that cause more severe disability. Especially in communities of color, most mental illnesses go untreated. In 2020, 52% of White people with a mental illness obtained mental health services, whereas only 37.1% of Black people and 35% of Hispanic people received treatment for the same ailment. The challenges posed by seeking treatment are enhanced when the stability and sense of safety associated with housing are not assured. Moreover, an estimated 20–25% of those experiencing homelessness in the United States suffer from serious mental health issues, compared to only 4–6% of the general population. Disproportionate rates of mental health struggles reflect intersectional disparities that plague our society, primarily affecting people experiencing homelessness as they are increasingly exposed to stress, violence, and discrimination.

To understand how these disparities connect to the unhoused community and Breaktime’s work, we need to take a step back. In a country with limited public access to health care, members of marginalized and financially insecure communities struggle further to access mental health resources. For youth experiencing homelessness, heightened barriers exist to access mental health treatment, such as lack of transportation, embarrassment about seeking help, past negative experiences with care, unaffordability of care, and not being old enough to consent to care. These barriers not only make recovery more difficult, but also perpetuate cycles that place communities at even greater risk of chronic homelessness. Untreated mental health issues for youth experiencing homelessness are also contributors to increased high school dropout rates and higher rates of unemployment. With this, the risk of engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms is also heightened, such as substance abuse or alcohol consumption—and the cycle of mental health disorders deepens. Without pathways to recovery, young adults struggle to complete basic tasks at school, work, and in their personal life, leading to disconnection and isolation, as well as longer and longer bouts of homelessness. This cycle of mental health and homelessness is then perpetuated across generations; breaking it is among Breaktime’s goals.

We believe that through transitional employment and financial empowerment, we can end young adult homelessness in the greater Boston area, uplift youth mental health, and reduce the stigma they encounter in their daily lives. We also work diligently to connect young adults with the premier mental health resources. To achieve this, we have formed numerous partnerships with mental health-based agencies to ensure young adults have access to quality care and services they deserve. Further, our staff is trained in evidence-based approaches and practices to address trauma.

Our curriculum for Launchpad, the first stage in our program, relies upon the understanding that nearly all of our Associates have encountered trauma while experiencing housing insecurity, making them susceptible to PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Breaktime’s staff is trained to identify signs of mental exhaustion and the need to reset, as well as to facilitate access to mental health resources. Additionally, Pathway Coaches provide a key mental health component to our program. Breaktime’s Pathway Coaches are students from local Master of Social Work programs who provide intentional support to young adults via one-on-support, workshops, community referrals, and interpreting outcomes data. Pathway Coaches are instrumental in providing our young adults with continuous mental health support by helping them connect to resources and find coping mechanisms. This work is vital to Breaktime’s mission and to the well-being of our Associates.

Breaktime relies on a holistic model to address youth homelessness, recognizing both the issue and its core causes. This method of helping others is impossible without visibility and regard for the mental health of those we serve, or the recognition of the special barriers to mental wellness that they face. The intersection of mental illness and financial insecurity is one that plagues people across the country, and without the intentional support of community organizations and peers, it is one that is difficult to reconcile. The mental health crisis our generation faces is one with many real-world effects on people from all financial backgrounds and of all housing statuses. And to adequately support the mental health of our communities, we must address the needs of all; we cannot leave anyone behind.

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