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Mental Health in Homelessness and Poverty

Mental Health in Homelessness and Poverty

In 2020 alone, 1 in 5 US adults experienced a mental illness. Among adolescents aged 12-17, 1 in 6 experienced a major depressive episode. With the continuing coronavirus pandemic, climate anxiety, and other stressors on the rise, mental health concerns are only projected to increase.

Read on to find out why our mental health matters, and how mental illness is a disproportionate burden on those of us facing homelessness and poverty.

Why Is Mental Health Important?

Mental health is a crucial part of our overall well-being that can have significant impacts on our day-to-day lives. Our mental health can affect the way we feel, think, and act throughout the day, as well as the decisions we make—healthy or unhealthy. Additionally, mental illness can negatively impact our ability to function in certain ways, and can increase the risk of physical health problems such as diabetes or heart disease.

It’s because of these real and far-reaching consequences that mental health awareness is so important. We need to pay attention not only to our own mental wellness, but to the mental well-being of others, and particularly the vulnerable.

Among the groups most frequently affected by mental illness are those experiencing homelessness and poverty. Here’s a look at how those experiences influence mental well-being, and how mental illness exacerbates those circumstances in turn.

Mental Health and Homelessness

Studies show that homelessness and mental illness have a complex relationship, wherein each has effects on the other. Among people experiencing homelessness, mental health struggles are especially prevalent. According to the APA, the population of Americans experiencing homelessness bears twice the rate of mental illness compared to the general population.

This is in part because of the psychological effects of homelessness. Living without reliable housing can be a form of trauma, and puts significant strain on mental health. Additionally, many people who experience homelessness have endured trauma in the past, or suffer from chronic trauma. The population of those experiencing homelessness therefore has a high rate of mental illness, with common affective disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse disorders.

This chain of cause-and-effect often works in the other direction as well. The Treatment Advocacy Center cites studies in which “people with serious mental illness were reported to be 10 to 20 times more likely than the general population to become homeless.” When people struggle with mental illness, they face challenges in daily living that can make it difficult for them to earn income for housing. This creates a vicious cycle in which homelessness and mental illness can reinforce each other.

Mental Health and Poverty

Similarly, poverty and mental illness are linked as both cause and consequence. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that “poverty increases the risk of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and substance addiction.” One of the psychological effects of poverty is the creation of a “scarcity mindset,” in which focus is placed on immediate goals at the expense of long-term planning. The ensuing tunnel vision on the immediate future can lead to poor financial decisions and the perpetuation of poverty.

Furthermore, the effects of poverty can persist beyond the timespan of financial hardship. Studies have shown that childhood poverty “is linked to deficits in adult memory; greater psychological distress, including a behavioral marker of helplessness; and elevated levels of chronic physiological stress.” The APA notes that these psychological problems resulting from poverty can include:


  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Attention problems

  • Disciplinary problems


While poverty can lead to mental health problems, mental illness can in turn create greater risk for poverty. A study of this causal relationship showed that “mental illness reduces employment and therefore income.” It also showed, however, that “psychological interventions generate economic gains,” while “anti-poverty programs such as cash transfers improve mental health.”

The good news in all of this is that the cycle can be broken. Because of the relationship between poverty, homelessness, and mental health, initiatives that benefit one area end up creating positive change in other areas as well. That’s why homeless mental health services, housing programs, hunger relief, education, and more all result in incredible positive outcomes for those in need.

Here at The Rescue Mission, we provide restorative care to men, women, and children experiencing a homelessness crisis so that we can change lives for good. Through the power of Jesus Christ, our ministries supply immediate relief for hunger and homelessness, along with shelter and care that give people the power to move forward. Donate online, volunteer, or shop at our thrift store, Treasure House to help change lives today!