When Janet Smith, an alumna of Breaktime, speaks about her past experience with homelessness, she describes a personal battle complicated by mental illness:
“I am fighting a fight every day. I fight it every day because it catches up with me every day, but I'm glad that I didn't let it control me. And that's why I'm here.”
In the United States, people experiencing homelessness are disproportionately affected by severe mental illness: 25% of people experiencing homelessness suffer from a serious mental illness, while only 6% of the general population is severely mentally ill.
Janet says homelessness had “crushing” effects on her struggles with anxiety and depression. “It took a real turn for my mental health,” she explains. “I felt that nobody wanted to help me, nobody wanted to do anything for me. I didn't want to do anything for myself.”
Breaktime, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to ending young adult homelessness through purposeful transitional employment, understands that young adults making the transition out of homelessness need stability, both financially and mentally.
The inseparable relationship between mental illness and homelessness is a vicious cycle. People with mental illness have a harder time sustaining stable housing and employment, which can lead to homelessness. Moreover, people experiencing homelessness encounter social exclusion, reduced access to treatment resources, stress, violence, and trauma—which can all contribute to adverse mental health—ultimately hindering their ability to overcome housing instability and mental illness.
People dealing with mental illness not only encounter difficulties carrying out daily tasks, but are also significantly limited by social stigma surrounding their condition. Some of the most prevalent mental illnesses among the unhoused population include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. These disorders can disrupt a person’s ability to perform tasks as well as their cognitive or behavioral processes, leading to challenges in maintaining stable employment and housing. A 2005 study of people with serious mental illnesses treated by California’s mental health services found that 15% of the 10,340 persons treated in a one year period had experienced homelessness.
Additionally, people with mental illness often face lower employment rates due to stigma surrounding their conditions, with many people deemed unsuitable for employment. Notably, people living with schizophrenia are six to seven times more likely to be unemployed. Further, people with mental illnesses may also isolate themselves from people that give care, such as family and friends, putting them at greater risk of experiencing homelessness due to loss of economic and emotional support in times of need.
At the same time, homelessness exacerbates the severity of preexisting mental illness and can lead to additional disorders. People experiencing homelessness endure great amounts of stress, which can cause increased anxiety, fear, insomnia, depression, paranoia, and substance use. According to Janet, when people with mental illnesses become homeless, “it really does put another load on you, because you already suffered from those things and now you're homeless and displaced and now you have to worry about this and that.”
Normally, people experience increased adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones when faced with a threat, and their hormone levels return to normal once it is eliminated. However, people experiencing homelessness face constant threats—from daily survival needs and inhospitable living conditions to crime and violence—and the resulting chronic stress can be debilitating and overwhelming, negatively impacting mental and physical health over time.
Janet’s experience reflects the isolation that many people experiencing homelessness feel. “You become homeless, displaced, and now you feel that the people that you were around have just given up on you,” she says. “You're surrounded by people, but you're actually just alone because you don't know anybody.”
In addition to the negative impacts of chronic stress, people experiencing homelessness often feel demoralized and isolated from society. Homelessness is more than just a lack of stable housing; it also entails the loss of personal relationships and social interactions. This dearth of social networks undoubtedly worsens mental health. In fact, one study concluded that the impact from a lack of social connections is comparable to the harmful effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day on a person’s health.
People facing homelessless are also actively excluded from society due to stigmas, resulting in feeling ignored or invisible. “You don't feel important anymore,” says Janet. “You don't feel like you're part of society. You don't feel like you're a part of anything. You feel like you're being looked down on.” Passersby often disregard people experiencing homelessness on the street or out in public. “You completely detach from the world and then nobody sees you—you're invisible,” Janet says of this reality.
People who have been displaced are often viewed with contempt or even verbally abused. The stigmas attached with homelessness as well as the negative treatment from people passing by leads many people experiencing homelessness to feel judged, ashamed, and marginalized from society. Janet says she felt defeated when people treated her and her peers with judgement. “You can hear people mumbling, talking...they give a disgusted look,” she says. “That right there can bring anybody down… [it] is 100% just crushing.”
Though the journey of transitioning out of homelessness while recovering from mental illness is certainly not an easy one, Janet has hope for the youth experiencing these conditions in the future. She says, “There's always programs for [youth]—getting them out, getting them active, getting them doing stuff—and I believe that's a form of [helping future youth] not feel what this generation feels.” Janet believes youth experiencing homelessness and mental illness can be supported through programs that provide job training and opportunities, and activities that distract from debilitating mental illness and homelessness.
Janet still struggles with her mental health, but she says she is now in a much better state thanks to employment and housing she secured upon graduating from Breaktime last month. “To take the opportunity, it got me up every Tuesday and every Thursday,” she says. “I got an apartment now—that's what I really wanted.”
“It just shows that you can let your mental illness win,” Janet adds, “Or you can fight it like I am.”
This article was written by Aaron Lai (Breaktime Coordinator) with support from Alex Koller (Breaktime Coordinator).