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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Maire

Mental Health and Homelessness in Utah


homeless camp utah

Homelessness is a public health issue. If you live around a major city, you've most likely seen people out on the street. Even in smaller cities, you'll often find people who suffer from it. Regardless of where you're at in the United States, it's not hard to notice that this is an issue. It's far more than just a lack of wanting to work, being homeless is a multifaceted problem that often affects people who suffer from serious mental illness, poverty, and even veterans with substance use disorders.

 

On a national level, there are roughly 580,000 people who are homeless every night, with the majority being males, and African Americans making up about 40% of that entire group (1). With that, there were around 37,000 veterans who were experiencing homelessness (1).

 

In Utah, the most recent statistic states that there were around 3700 people in the entire state who are experiencing homelessness (2). This number has been increasing since 2019 and was especially exacerbated by COVID-19. Finding stable housing will continue to become harder especially as rent prices keep rising and wages don't rise alongside with it to match the economic burden (2).

 

What causes homelessness (in Utah and in the world)?

Homelessness is caused mainly by unstable housing conditions caused by increases in rent with wages not rising enough to match the economic burden that it takes to pay rent. Right now, it's pretty common for people to be paying 50% of their paychecks just for their housing situations (3).

 

It's easy to look at those who experience homelessness and think that they brought it upon themselves, in reality, it's a lot more complicated than that. In a recent article published by the National Library of Medicine, they discussed the true causes of homelessness and found that serious mental illness doesn't necessarily put you at risk for homelessness, but more often than not, being homeless puts you at risk for increased mental illness including depression, suicidal ideation, symptoms of trauma, and substance use disorders (3). The article also stated that around half of the people who experience homelessness suffer from some type of traumatic brain injury.

 

Dr. Noel Gardner, a psychiatrist who worked for the University of Utah, posted a PowerPoint online that includes data on Utah's homeless situation. He states that for single people in Utah who experience homelessness, it is often caused by a lack of affordable housing, substance use, and mental illness, with all these factors occurring simultaneously (4). For entire families who experience homelessness, he stated that it is caused also by a lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment, with these factors also occurring simultaneously4. Likewise, Dr. Gardner found that over 80% of people who experience chronic homelessness either suffer from substance use disorder and/or a serious mental illness.



homeless man with dog utah


How does homelessness affects a person’s mental health

If a person is experiencing homelessness in any way, they are more at risk for: 

  • Substance use disorders

  • Mental illnesses

  • Trauma 

  • Medical conditions

  • Incarceration 


It’s not just a matter of finding some sort of shelter, in order for people who experience homelessness to be treated for their conditions, housing and mental/physical treatment need to be conducted at the same time in order to have any lasting effect on the person1.



homeless man street utah


Children who experience homelessness are also at higher risks of being affected psychologically, with children being more at risk for emotional and behavioral problems1. Veterans who are homeless are also more at risk for developing a substance use disorder along with another condition that could be affecting them (1)


Overall, homelessness is detrimental not only on a physical but also emotional and mental aspect. It doesn’t help that some people don’t even feel any sort of sympathy for those who struggle with it, as they often believe the person did something to deserve it. This attitude towards homeless people can lead to more ostracization towards them which, if done to anyone regardless of their mental health, can have a negative impact on their self-esteem and mental health. 


Resources to support and understand homelessness in Utah and beyond

It’s important to clarify the types of homelessness that someone can experience. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defined 3 types of homelessness that a person can experience: 

  1. Transitional - Occurs for less than a year, but can be as short as weeks or months 

  2. Episodic - Occurs when people enter and leave homelessness in constant “episodes”. Occurs most often in unstable housing conditions. 

  3. Chronic - Lasting over a year, or occurring repeatedly, while struggling with a debilitating condition including a serious mental illness, substance use disorder or physical disability. 


Taking this into account, you might know someone personally who struggles with an unstable housing condition or who has “couch surfed” by hopping around the homes of friends and/or family. Regardless, there are a lot more people who may be experiencing homelessness that we simply didn’t even realize. It might even be you, the person reading this article. 


If you, or anyone you know, is struggling with making ends to meet to pay rent, living in unsuitable housing conditions, or currently homeless in any way, don’t be afraid to reach out to some of these resources: 

  1. You can also dial 211 and you can be directed to a community directory that offers community resources. Someone there can help either direct you to resources or offer advice on how to help someone else. 


Consider spending time at local food banks or other local organizations in which you can volunteer to help the homeless people in your community. Every person deserves their basic needs to be met, regardless of the circumstance in which they find themselves. 


At the end of the day we don’t know everyone’s life experience, so everyone is deserving of help and of a safe, stable place to live in. Always treat those who experience homelessness with kindness. Who are we to judge them for their circumstances? 


Sources


This blog was written by Alessandro Gemio, edited by Izzy Maire, and reviewed/approved by Taylor Madsen, LMFT, and Hailey Maire, LCSW. 


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