How to Address Mental Health for Students Experiencing Homelessness
December 7, 2021
Anxiety, stress or any mental health disorder can be challenging enough for children and adolescents. When going to school—attending classes, focusing on lessons and doing homework—intersects with the instability and uncertainty that comes with homelessness, those feelings can intensify.
Times of crisis can pose more risks. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of youth living with mental health disorders was already significant. More than 1 in 3 high school students reported experiencing periods of sadness and hopelessness in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary and Trends Report: 2009–2019 (PDF, 32.1 MB). During the pandemic, the prevalence of symptoms of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents worldwide doubled, JAMA Pediatrics reported.
For youth experiencing homelessness, closures and quarantines disrupted one stable, routine environment: school. In addition to challenges of living with homelessness, students had to find ways to connect with teachers, peers and Wi-Fi.
Almost three quarters of students experiencing homelessness are doubled-up and sharing housing with youth in similar situations, and a tenth of them are navigating life without parents or guardians.
Homelessness and LGBTQIA+ Youth
LGBTQ youth have more than double the risk of experiencing homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers, according to the independent policy research center Chapin Hall report Missed Opportunities: LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in America (PDF, 7.2 MB). The report also said that LGBTQ youth, who noted they were without housing largely because of family instability and frayed relationships, experienced more trauma and adversity than non-LGBTQ youth in similar situations. It also found that transgender youth were met with more severe and varied types of discrimination and trauma, including physical harm and exchanging sex for basic needs.
LGBTQIA+ students experiencing homelessness may benefit from counselors and social workers taking a holistic approach to understand the potential stressors that are uniquely affecting their mental health.
How Does Homelessness Affect Student Mental Health?
children experiencing homelessness has a major mental health disorder by the age of 8.
3 to 6x
more suicide attempts are reported among unhoused students compared to housed students.
of unhoused students reported significantly higher rates of depression, compared to 27% of students with housing.
Depression can be compounded by contributing factors and negative effects, according to the ICPH. Increased risks of dating violence and bullying for unhoused students can lead to a higher risk of depression, which can also result in a greater likelihood of harmful behaviors such as alcohol and substance misuse.
Strategies for Supporting the Mental Health of Students Experiencing Homelessness
Teachers, school administrators and other adults can help in meaningful ways. Below are recommendations to support students experiencing problems with mental health and homelessness from SchoolHouse Connection, which works to overcome homelessness through education:
Prioritize mental health check-ins.
Be intentional about asking how they are feeling outside of calendar events, such as therapy sessions or support group meetings.
Have one-on-one talks.
Schedule regular conversations that provide space for meaningful discussions over the phone, on video chat or in person.
Organize group activities.
Invite students to participate in virtual game activities, outdoor concerts, sports or other events to promote peer support and togetherness.
Offer employment resources for older students.
Because structure can be important for some people, have lists of potential employers and guidance on applying for jobs.
Recognize and validate their experiences.
Provide safe spaces where students feel they can express themselves without judgment and build trust to ask for help
Share online resources related to self-care and mental health.
Ensure that helpful toolkits, articles and websites are available.
Mental Health Resources for Students Experiencing Homelessness
Use the links below to navigate to resources designed to help students living with mental health disorders who are experiencing homelessness.
SAMHSA National Helpline: free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for people facing mental and/or substance use disorders at 800-662-4357.
Suicide Prevention, SafePlace: free text support for those who send “SAFE” and address of their location to 44357; response will provide nearby address where help will be available.
Teen Line: free peer talk line from a national organization on a mission to provide support before problems become a crisis available 9 p.m.–1 a.m. ET at 800-852-8336 and free text support by sending “TEEN” to 839863 available 9 p.m. to midnight ET.
Trevor Project – Reach a Counselor: free talk line counseling support 24/7 for LGBTQ young people in crisis at 866-488-7386 and free support 24/7 for those who text “START” to 678678.
Online Pages and Toolkits
Anxiety, HelpGuide: information on various types of anxiety disorders, their symptoms and coping tips.
Anxiety and Stress, Safe Place: tips for coping and other steps to consider when dealing with worry and stress that can affect sleep, appetite and the ability to concentrate and engage with others.