Written by Grace Costa

Mental Health for Homeless Youth

At Eva’s, mental health and access to services is challenge we witness youth struggling with every single day.

There’s a growing awareness about the importance of mental health along with more investment in services. Yet this meaningful attempt to bring awareness often neglects the complex mental health needs and concerns of youth who are marginalized. What about youth experiencing homelessness?

At Eva’s, mental health and access to services is a challenge we witness youth struggling with every single day.

Our staff are skilled social service work professionals and we have long-standing partnerships with community mental health services. But within the 24-hour shelter structure, we’re often left in the sole position to care for homeless youth in urgent mental health crises.

Sometimes, it leads to terrible outcomes.

Last year, a young person staying at one of our shelter facilities died due to suicide. Our team and partner agencies had attempted to get this young person medical support for suicidal thoughts on a number of occasions, but each time, the youth was redirected back to us. On the last hospital visit, they identified a possible cause for these suicidal thoughts, but gave the youth an appointment two weeks away.

The young person’s death occurred before that appointment came. It was a preventable tragedy and, unfortunately, they are not the only one who didn’t get timely mental health supports they needed and deserved.

Many of the youth we serve experience ongoing mental health concerns.

Many of the youth we serve experience ongoing mental health concerns, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, and access to immediate services is often unavailable. Many have faced trauma, violence, discrimination, and abuse and, given their limited access to medical services, some may self-medicate by using substances such as alcohol and drugs. This, of course, puts their long-term health, well-being, and access to opportunities in further jeopardy.

Research confirms what we’ve observed in our facilities. The latest national survey on youth homelessness uncovered an alarming reality: 85.4% of homeless youth report high mental health distress, and 42% report at least one suicide attempt (Gaetz, O’Grady, Kidd, and Schwan, 2016). As a social determinant of health, lack of safe, affordable housing is absolutely traumatic to young people and leads to reduced mental health. At the same time, young peoples’ existing mental health concerns quickly intensify due to homelessness and housing instability.

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home Canada, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health just released a policy brief on mental health care for homeless youth (Schwan, Kidd, Gaetz, O’Grady, and Redman, 2017). It’s an urgent call for action and addresses how many homeless youth struggle to access appropriate services when they experience mental health and addictions challenges and describes failed, uncoordinated systems. It’s a call we must support if we truly want young people to thrive over the long term, safe, housed, and healthy.

After the death of this young person, Eva’s released a petition that 7,710 Ontarians signed onto. We’re thrilled that so many people demonstrated their support for homeless youth to receive access to increased public funds for mental health and addictions counselling, psychological services, crisis support, and case management.

What can you do? You can share this article with other people you know. Don’t let discussions about mental health happen without including what homeless youth go through. Awareness is the first step and action is the next. You can contribute financially to Eva’s and other organizations on the frontlines, helping to alleviate some of the day-to-day pressure of maintaining facilities and enabling more embedded mental health staffing and partnerships. And you can reach out to your government representatives on all levels to ask what they’re doing to concertedly support young people. Not just young people with access to resources, but more pressingly, the young people with the least access.

Read the full policy brief: Mental Health Care for Homeless Youth: A Proposal for Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Leadership, Coordination, and Targeted Investment (The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home Canada, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2017).

About the Author

Grace is General Manager at Eva's Place, North York Toronto's first shelter, founded in 1994.

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