The mental health challenges faced by homeless youth in Canada were the subject of a recent study by researchers from three Ontario universities, who analyzed data from a nationwide youth homelessness survey to conclude that there’s a “compelling need” for more mental health supports for homeless youth, finding mental health needs to be of particular concern for both homeless female youth and LGBTQ2S youth.
With an estimated 235,000 Canadians experiencing homelessness each year, Canada is currently in the midst of a homelessness crisis. A report last year by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticized Canada for its “persistent housing crisis” and for government inaction on affordable housing and policies supportive of homeless rights. At the same time, social justice advocates say that the current housing crises in Toronto and Vancouver is putting too many Canadians at risk of ending up on the street.
For young Canadians, the challenges of homelessness are especially steep. Studies show that between 60 and 70 per cent of homeless youth report neglect, physical violence and/or sexual violence prior to becoming homeless. Difficulties in school, family problems, mental health challenges and criminal justice and child protection issues are also factors. Once on the street, suicide, drug abuse as well as mental and physical health problems become more prevalent and finding a secure path out of homelessness becomes difficult.
A new study from researchers at the University of Toronto, York University and the University of Guelph attempts to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the mental health issues faced by homeless youth, by drawing on data from the 2015 “Leaving Home” national youth homelessness survey. The study performed a cross-sectional analysis based on survey responses from 1103 youth and across a range of indicators including quality of life, psychiatric symptoms, substance abuse, suicide attempt history and resilience.
Overall, the researchers found that homeless youth were at high risk for mental health issues.
“At a general level, this is a high-risk population in marked distress,” say the study’s authors, whose research is published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. “From an intervention perspective, this study provides clear and compelling evidence of a need for mental health support for these youth.”
In particular, the study found that homeless female youth reported poorer mental health and higher suicide rate in comparison with cisgender males and that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and 2 spirit youth (LGBTQ2S) were at particular risk. “LBGTQ2S youth reported significantly lower quality of life, poorer mental health, a 70 per cent suicide attempt rate as compared with 39 per cent for straight and cisgender participants, and higher rates of substance abuse (66.5 per cent compared with 41.8 per cent),” say the study’s authors.
The researchers found that Indigenous youth’s reported quality of life was on average no different than non-Indigenous youth, although they did portray a higher suicide attempt rate and greater substance abuse.
Other factors that negatively affected quality of life for homeless youth included exposure to physical violence while on the street, sexual violence, having a history of child protection involvement and/or neglect. The study found that being in contact with at least one family member was associated with better quality of life, lower symptoms and a lower suicide attempt rate and that having someone who could help in an emergency was also associated with better quality of life.