Many of us understand that mental illness and substance abuse are closely tied in to homelessness, but more often than not, how exactly these issues combine is unclear. Nearly one in three chronically homeless people in the United States suffer from a serious mental illness, and close to two in three have a substance use disorder1.
Substance abuse and addiction are similar but different; Substance abuse relates to physical reliance on drugs or alcohol, while addiction includes mental and physical reliance, including dependency to non-drug related things such as work or gambling. Mental illness is often a precursor to substance abuse disorders and addiction. People with mental illness struggle to manage tasks of daily living such as obtaining or maintaining jobs, paying rent, or having positive relationships.
They often seek to escape the unwanted mental, emotional and physical pain they have by trying to cover them up with drugs and alcohol. For these reasons, many people with mental and chronic illnesses acquire substance abuse disorders and become homeless; Vice versa, many homeless individuals become inflicted with mental illness and addiction after periods of chronic homelessness in order to escape the trauma they encounter.
This begins the binding cycle, or downward spiral. Once homeless, deep rooted and crippling mental health symptoms can be triggered or caused by a lack of shelter, often turning the victim to substance abuse as the most accessible treatment. When left untreated, mental health disorders and addiction severely impair a person’s ability to function and overcome barriers to end homelessness.
How do we change this? The way we handle mental illness and addiction is a big factor. The video below explores what we know about the importance of community in breaking this cycle. (Courtesy of Kurzgesagt)
Connecting with others is a key to breaking free. The opposite of addiction is connection because it can give those struggling a sense of purpose and relevancy in life. When someone spends time in a positive social environment they are more likely to experience happiness and self-worth, promoting good behaviors and thought patterns. This in turn aides the individual in moving past barriers to seek mental health treatment.
Illumination Foundation helps build a recovery community by offering mental health and substance use counseling as part of our overall behavioral health program. These services assist homeless clients in addressing any mental illness or substance abuse problems in a safe space. By engaging in counseling, clients are given the opportunity to address underlying issues that fuel mental illness and addiction, while building a community of trust with case managers and peers.
We offer clients individual, couples, family and group therapy. Our client-centered services are provided “in-home”- For some clients, home might be in a park, a shelter, a recuperative care center or a micro-community. We believe in meeting the client where they are, both physically and mentally.
Clients have access to therapy with communication skills, anger management skills and coping skills for dealing with uncomfortable emotions like anxiety and depression. We also have groups that focus on life skills such as organization, time management and budgeting, while individual sessions focus more specifically on each client’s mental health concerns, emotional needs and relationship goals.
Harm-reduction therapy services are a significant step towards breaking the cycle of homelessness. Along with building a community, Illumination Foundation continues to improve our behavioral health program everyday in order to better meet the needs of our struggling homeless population.
1Gillis L., Dickerson G., Hanson J. Recovery and homeless services: New directions for the field. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal. 2010:71–79. doi: 10.2174/1874924001003020071.
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Director of Behavioral Health, Illumination Foundation
Behavioral Health Therapist, Illumination Foundation
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