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Research sheds light on homelessness and mental illness

June 7, 2011
by News release
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In a recent study funded by the Australian Research Council, researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne are challenging widely-held beliefs about the connections between homelessness and mental illness.

Authored by Dr. Guy Johnson, a Senior Research Fellow with the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) at RMIT, and Prof. Chris Chamberlain, the paper will be published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues (Autumn 2011).

Their research involved using information from a study of 4,291 homeless people in Melbourne. They found only 15 precent had mental health issues before becoming homeless, while 16 percent of the sample developed mental health problems after becoming homeless.

The findings challenged the community perception that mental illness was the primary cause of homelessness, according to Johnson. In fact, he claims their research shows the "vast majority" of people do not have mental health problems before becoming homeless.

"Homelessness does cause mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and is a serious problem for a significant minority of homeless people," he said. ""But the claim that most homeless people are mentally ill—or that mental illness is the primary cause of homelessness—sends the wrong message to policy makers about the services that are needed to help people out of homelessness."

The study, which used case records of 4,291 people using two homelessness services in inner-Melbourne, also found:

  • 78 percent of those who developed mental health issues after becoming homeless were 24 or younger when homelessness first occurred

  • 63 percent of the young people who developed mental health problems after becoming homeless also had substance abuse issues

  • 80 percent of the sample had been homeless for one year or longer and 50 per cent had been homeless for two years or more

According to Johnson, focusing too heavily on mental health deflected attention from the more pervasive structural causes of homelessness, such as family breakdown, insufficient income and a lack of affordable housing.

"For homeless people directly affected by these structural factors, the solution lies outside the medical arena—and research indicates that providing housing to homeless people before treating their mental health issues is actually a more effective approach," he said.

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