• Could homelessness, and its depressive or isolating features, cause mental illness? (iStockphoto/Getty Images)
Contrary to popular belief, mental illness is not the main cause of homelessness in Australia.
By
Nicola Heath

28 Jun 2017 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2017 - 10:56 AM

Picture in your mind a person who is homeless.

The image you conjure up is probably a rough sleeper with a mental illness – the stereotypical homeless person.

But it’s a stereotype that fails to reflect reality. Rough sleepers account for just six per cent of homeless people. Most people who are homeless (39 per cent) live in severely overcrowded dwellings. And mental illness is not the primary driver of homelessness in Australia – that dubious honour goes to domestic violence.

In fact, homelessness is just as likely to be the cause of mental illness than the other way around. A 2011 study of homeless people in Melbourne found that 15 per cent of the sample had a mental illness before becoming homeless. Another 16 per cent developed a mental health condition after becoming homeless.

Mental illness is not the primary driver of homelessness in Australia – that dubious honour goes to domestic violence.

“The claim that most homeless people are mentally ill sends the wrong message to policy makers about the services that are needed to assist homeless people,” write the authors.

Blaming mental illness overlooks the social and structural problems that cause homelessness – family violence, relationship breakdown, housing affordability, employment issues, race and inequality.

Provisional psychologist Zoe Walter has a PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Queensland and is studying a Masters of Clinical Psychology. Homelessness is often misrepresented as a choice, she says. “Focusing on choice ignores those structural constraints that actually give rise to and shape the homeless experience. We are saying it is an individual’s problem rather than society’s problem.”

Blaming mental illness overlooks the social and structural problems that cause homelessness – family violence, relationship breakdown, housing affordability, employment issues, race and inequality.

As the ABS website observes, the reality is that “homelessness is one of the most potent examples of disadvantage in the community.”

Why does homelessness cause mental illness?

By their very nature, the circumstances that lead to homelessness are major causes of stress and anxiety. You may be leaving foster care, prison or a violent relationship, and most likely will be experiencing financial hardship – all factors that “tie into our mental health,” says Walter.

Another issue is lack of social support. “You become excluded from mainstream society, and you're more likely to be isolated from other people in your social support network like family and friends,” she says.

There are also physical problems associated with homelessness. “You're more likely to be a victim of violent crime, [and] you're more likely to experience chronic health problems after becoming homelessness.”

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While it is not the main cause of homelessness is Australia, mental illness can pose a threat to a person’s access to housing. SBS Life recently published the story of Heidi, whose struggles with mental illness saw her live on the streets for a short period. Now in her mid-forties, Heidi said she felt like an “extra-terrestrial” when she was sleeping rough.

“You're more likely to be a victim of violent crime, [and] you're more likely to experience chronic health problems after becoming homelessness.”

Once you are homeless, it can be difficult to access mental health services. “In Australia, there's an increasing recognition that there needs to be more communication between homeless and housing services, and health services,” says Walter. “The two are quite separate, with homeless services obviously referring to health services, and health services trying to connect people with homeless services.”

The stereotype of a ‘homeless person’ needs to be eliminated - this is why
People who self-identify as 'homeless' have poorer wellbeing than others in the same circumstances, yet that's the label they must adopt to qualify for help.

In an age of widespread rent and mortgage stress (suffered by one in five Sydney households, according to 2016 Census data), Walter believes social housing is one of the most effective preventative measures against homelessness. In an ideal world, in-house social workers and counsellors would provide residents of community housing the support they need to manage mental health issues in a stable environment. “Housing is necessary for mental health, and mental health can impact on a person's tenancy,” says Walter.

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter: @nicoheath or Instagram: @nicola_heath

 


'Filthy Rich and Homeless', a new three-part documentary series, will explore the experience of homelessness when it airs on SBS on Tuesday 27, Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 June at 8.30pm. Each show will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.  

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