Poor mental health can be both a cause and consequence of homelessness

by Ed Tytherleigh | Stoll
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 14:22 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A homeless person lays on cardboard decorated with Union Flags in central London June 3, 2012. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

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Data shows that four in 10 people who sleep rough need mental health support

Ed Tytherleigh is the Chief Executive of Stoll, a leading supported housing charity for vulnerable and disabled veterans

Today is both World Homelessness Day and World Mental Health Day. Mental health and homelessness can often combine to affect anyone, on any day of the year.

 A home brings stability and cultivates a place for good physical and mental health. Most of us take that for granted while poor mental health can be both a cause and consequence of homelessness. Data shows that four in 10 people who sleep rough need mental health support.

The British government’s latest figures on homelessness show a 15 percent increase in the number of people sleeping rough in the last year and an overall increase of 160 percent in recent years. What’s more, authoritative research completed by the University of York reports that every year more than a thousand of those people are ex-service personnel who require urgent support to find accommodation. 

There are all sorts of reasons why veterans end up homeless.

Homelessness can be triggered by mental health conditions surfacing as a result of service, losing a job or a relationship breakdown. Or it can happen as easily as being unprepared to leave the Armed Forces and subsequently struggling to readjust to civilian life.

Some service personnel who are leaving the military can be more vulnerable to mental distress. Imagine not only leaving your career behind, but also all your friends, your support network and home - at the same time.

Army veteran Alison found looking for new employment and a home for her and her 6-year-old son a daunting prospect. The unaffordable cost of living shocked Alison. Facing the prospect of being made homeless with her son frightened Alison and affected her mental health, but she reached out for help (something veterans can find hard to do) and we found her a home.

For some, it is bad housing conditions that aggravate and cause mental health problems.

Without a stable roof over your head, your mental health can easily deteriorate. Army medic Dave struggled to find housing and ended up in temporary shared accommodation. He lived there for three years and it was an extremely difficult period. Dave would lock himself in his room and not come out – not using the bathroom or kitchen because of fear, not knowing what or who he was going to face. Dave developed anorexia and his stress and anxiety levels increased significantly. It wasn’t until Dave moved into his own property and felt secure that he could address his eating disorder properly.

Poor mental health can also be a barrier to engaging with available services. It’s often harder to access healthcare when you don’t have a permanent roof over your head and many rely on emergency hospital services at crisis points. 

For army veteran Luke, his poor mental health meant he ended up on the streets. Luke’s undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) meant his drinking quickly escalated as he tried to block out memories from combat. This led to him spending a year sleeping rough on the streets. He didn’t receive a PTSD diagnosis until six years after leaving the army when he was finally able to receive the support he needed. He now has a home and said the future looks bright for him, as he plans to go back in to work in the next few years and move closer to family.

I am optimistic that we can reduce the number of homeless veterans close to zero and support people with complex mental health problems to lead independent fulfilling lives. It can be done. So, what’s the solution? Getting the system right is vital.

Identifying those people who may struggle and making sure they get the right advice before they leave the armed forces is critical.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence is developing a new veterans’ strategy and we are working with the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, Tobias Ellwood, to ensure tackling homelessness is included.

Stoll and other organisations have also introduced the Veterans Housing Advice service telephone support for homeless veterans as part of the Veterans Gateway, a national helpline that veterans can call to seek support if they need it, including for housing and mental health issues. 

Addressing housing and mental health in policy and practice will help us get veterans (and hopefully all) homelessness close to zero. Yes, this is optimistic, but if we focus on this goal – it’s also achievable.