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The Cycle of Mental Health: Examining the Intersection of Homelessness, Covid-19, & Mental Illness

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash

Earlier this year, hospitals were having a crisis. With more young adults seeking care for mental health struggles than ever before, hospitals were left with few options to take care of their patients. Patients needed long-term treatment, and hospitals had nowhere to place them. But with extreme concern for patient mental health, hospitals couldn’t just send their patients home. These kids needed somewhere to go.

Suddenly, people began paying attention to these hospitals’ lack of a space for youth experiencing mental health struggles, and headlines quickly followed. Without places for its patients experiencing severe struggles with mental health, healthcare providers were unable to give adequate care. This crisis was dangerous; without care, many of these high-risk youth couldn’t seek treatment.

As a member of this generation of young adults, I was struck by these headlines, which brought to my attention the struggles that millions of kids my age face every year. Now stricken by the pandemic, changes in schooling, and social isolation, this crisis is getting worse. The CDC published research in June 2021 that showed how the pandemic affected mental health. They found that emergency room visits associated with suicide attempts had increased by 50% in girls between 12 and 17 years old. Globally, 1 in 7 young adults experience mental health struggles, and only a few receive high-quality treatment.

Diving deeper into these trends, however, I noticed something: of the many determinants for mental health struggles, poverty and homelessness were among the most dangerous. For many young adults, mounting financial pressures can cause severe anxiety and worsen one’s mental health. That, combined with the social adversity and discrimination that people experiencing housing insecurity face, makes this mental health crisis especially prominent in young adults experiencing homelessness (YAEH).

A 2015 study provides evidence for this risk-factor, showing that as many as 25% of people experiencing homlessness also experience severe struggles with mental health. 45% of the 550,000 people experiencing homelessness at the time faced mental health struggles. Compared to only 4.2% of U.S adults who experience severe mental illness, these figures stuck out. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has yet to release data describing the effect of the pandemic on these figures, but it can be assumed that both the number of individuals experiencing homelessness and the number struggling with mental health have increased.

At Breaktime, we recognize homelessness as being part of a “cycle”. In other words, once one experiences homelessness, they often struggle to transition out of it. After all, building up the financial security necessary to ensure financial stability can be difficult when experiencing homelessness. And combined with the discrimination that people experiencing homelessness face in hiring processes, these financial burdens can make homelessness cyclical, causing a transition out of it to feel impossible.

Looking at homelessness as a cycle and seeing its connections to mental health reveals how these crises can worsen one another. People experiencing homelessness often face circumstances that negatively affect their mental health, like poverty, loneliness, and vulnerability. These risk factors can encourage depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles, while adverse living environments also limit access to sleep and restorative resources. Without access to safe environments and affordable medical treatment, these adversities only worsen.

At the same time, mental illness can also worsen one’s struggles with homelessness. Mental illness can harm one’s job prospects and limit one’s ability to transition out of homelessness. Like any health issue, depression and anxiety can make earning a stable income and completing everyday tasks difficult. Mental illness can also heighten feelings of isolation, causing people to feel alone. These outcomes are dangerous to anyone. But for people experiencing homelessness, these effects can be detrimental to any effort to transition out of homelessness. With these effects, the cycle of homelessness deepens.

Furthermore, in our society, police departments are often tasked with engaging with people experiencing homelessness. Without proper training, however, police officers can be overly confrontational with people experiencing homelessness, and as a result, many end up placed in jail without any justification. People experiencing homelessness, many of whom are people of color, face the effects of police’s implicit biases, and mental illness can negatively affect the outcomes of these interactions.

In all, the mental health crisis our country faces is dire, and heightened awareness is important for everyone’s well being. But in a society with extreme socioeconomic division and deeply-rooted prejudices against minority groups, the effects of the mental health crisis can be further compounded, and it is important to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, gender, housing status, or otherwise, has access to life-saving treatments. That way, we can make our society a better place.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with mental illness, please do not hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

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