Many youth who are struggling to cope with homelessness must also contend with serious mental health issues. About 35 percent of the homeless youth who come to us are suffering from mental illnesses, like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or schizophrenia. This marks a significant increase from a decade ago.
“The prevalence of mental illness is growing and the issues are becoming much more serious and complex,” explains Eileen, our nurse manager. “When youth are unwell, they can lack insight into their illness, so they don’t seek help until their condition is very advanced.”
There is a tragic pattern of cause and effect that we see too often with our kids at Covenant House. Mental health issues can arise from the trauma of growing up in an abusive home. Youth sometimes leave for the street where they are especially vulnerable to being exploited. Predators can tell when a youth is struggling with mental health issues or developmental challenges. They will find ways to capitalize on their weaknesses, resulting in even more suffering and loss of dignity for the youth.
Mental health challenges can also be the fallout of drug use, but youth often seek out drugs in the first place to numb the pain of loss or abuse. It’s a cycle with no end, unless a dramatic change is made.
Some young people have emerging mental health issues like schizophrenia that create challenges within even the most well-meaning families. The stress can cause tensions to mount and that can ultimately result in the youth leaving home. A youth experiencing a break with reality will also often seek out drugs to “self-medicate”, which worsens their condition. Early intervention, including counseling, medication and other therapies, can mean the difference between recovery and permanent decline.
Every youth who comes to us is assessed to ensure they are given the support they need. Our onsite health care clinic has two visiting psychiatrists, as well as family doctors and staff nurses that are highly skilled at providing excellent, compassionate care based on the latest research to youth with mental health issues. The staff at our clinic is well connected with other resources in the community. They communicate regularly with partner organizations, as well as our own program staff, to ensure our youth receive integrated care.
“Our youth can be very transient and disconnected from the community, so their care has been intermittent,” says Eileen. “They are also often mistrustful of the health care system and other institutional settings, so one of the most important things we do for youth is to nurture a rapport with them.”
Along with traditional therapies, we equip youth with a “toolbox” of techniques to deal directly with challenges as they arise like anger, sadness, compulsive behaviours like cutting themselves or addictions. We offer support groups where youth can learn tactics like deep breathing, reframing thoughts and other emotional regulation skills that are simple, but powerful.
We also have a range of onsite programs specifically for youth who have mental health challenges. Arts & Minds is our mental health day program for youth who are unable or not yet ready to attend school or work. The innovative program uses art therapy, as well as other hands-on activities like cooking and gardening. Through these creative techniques, we are able to teach kids communication and social skills in a non-threatening way.
St. Michael’s Hospital and Youthdale, a children’s mental health service, operate mental health programs here at Covenant House. St. Michael’s STEPS program offers treatment for young people who have experienced the signs and symptoms of a first episode of psychosis. Youthdale is launching a new day program that provides treatment for youth diagnosed with mental health issues. Youthdale staff are also providing additional support to youth in our crisis shelter program. Both programs are also open to our residential youth and to referrals from the community.
Shame, stigma and the symptoms of mental illnesses themselves can provide barriers for young people to seek help. But treatment can be utterly transformative and restore a youth’s quality of life. We work hard to serve the needs of each youth as they come to us, so they can reclaim their lives and embrace the future.
“It’s amazing to see the transformation of our youth,” shares Eileen. “They come to us at a very low point in their lives, but when they are exposed to an enriching, positive environment, they just flourish.”