In general, those who see the homeless population from afar don’t really give it much thought. You might be driving in your car across a bridge and see the frail men and women struggling to survive beneath you. You might be taking a walk along the beach and see homeless youth exchanging money for drugs. You might be riding your bike downtown and see people pushing their shopping carts and carrying their life’s possessions.
It’s easy to ignore. We have our own lives. We have our own problems. Yet, the problem of homelessness is a large one in the United States and it goes hand in hand with addiction. According to a report released in 2003 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, there are approximately 38% of homeless men and women who also have an alcohol dependency and/or a drug addiction. Furthermore, according to this report, substance abuse is the largest cause of homelessness.
Frequently, substance abuse begins with a mental illness. It is incredibly common for those with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other psychological illness to turn to drugs or drinking as a way to manage their symptoms. Many men and women do this unknowingly. Drugs become an attractive choice as a way to self-medicate and ease the painful stress of life’s instability. The National Coalition for the Homeless indicates that those who are homeless suffer from extreme forms of anxiety and depression, along with low self-esteem. In fact, they found that the rates of major depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder to be three times higher among the homeless.
Sadly, very few homeless individuals have access to mental health services. And as a result, not only to self-medicate, but drugs also become attractive because it’s a way to escape the challenges of their lives. Research has shown that the use of drugs and alcohol increases among those whose living situations become more and more stressful and unstable. Homeless men and women are more likely to use marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
Because homelessness is a difficult life to live, the highs that come with drinking and drug use continue to remain attractive despite the lows it brings later. Homeless men and women are prone to suicide attempts and self-harming behavior, such as cutting their wrists, burning the skin, and self-tattooing. Out of desperation to survive, those who are homeless will commit crimes such as theft, assault, and trespassing. Many have needed to break into abandoned buildings in order to find a place to sleep and/or live temporarily. Along these lines, some men and women will also resort to prostitution in order to survive.
Although not everyone becomes homeless for the same reasons, it’s easy to see how an addiction that has gotten out of hand could lead to homelessness. For example, an addiction might lead to the loss of a job, relationships, and family support. It’s easy to see how homelessness might become a reality for someone who let their substance use get out of hand.
However, Paul Gionfriddo, former Connecticut State Representative and Mayor has a different thought. He believes that those who are homeless are not that way because of mental illness and addiction, but rather because of the way that mental illnesses, including addiction, are treated.
Gionfriddo’s son Tim became homeless because of the way that his behavioral and psychological needs were initially not met at school. Gionfriddo points out that treatment for those who have a psychological disorder tends to begin with being hospitalized. Then, if addiction or mental illness led to crime (which is likely), then it might continue with incarceration. Finally, it might end up with homelessness because often there is nowhere else to go. Sadly, there is very little integration of the mental health system with the legal system. Mental health service providers in the community should continue to provide care to those with mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Fortunately, there are organizations, both private and publicly funded that provide a large array of services that address homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. If you or someone you know is struggling with homelessness, addiction, and/or mental illness, seek the support of one of these agencies. They often have homeless shelters where men and women can get food, take a shower, have their medical needs met, and receive psychotherapeutic services. Of course, contacting any mental health professional can also be a beginning first step to seek assistance.
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