Homeless Teens are at Greater Risk for Mental Illness

If you’re a teen attending junior high or high school, you might not be able to identify classmates that sleep on the streets at night. It’s not frequently spoken about, and most homeless teens are too ashamed to admit that they don’t have a home to return to. However, across the country, teen homelessness is a significant problem, placing many adolescents at risk for physical and mental illness.


Physical Illness Among Homeless Youth


Perhaps you might imagine that if a teen doesn’t have a home, they likely don’t have the resources for food either. In addition, because they don’t have a stable place to sleep, they often don’t get the rest they need. Health professionals frequently see homeless teens going without enough food or sleep, which they need for healthy development. Here is some of the research on how homelessness affects the physical health of teens:

  • Homeless teens are more than twice as likely as housed teens to go to school hungry.
  • According to a 2015 survey by No Kid Hungry, teens who eat breakfast before school are more likely to have better attendance and participate in school.
  • Homeless teens are more likely to get fewer than four hours of sleep.


Without the proper rest and nutrition, teens are more likely to develop obesity, diabetes, mental health issues, and addiction to drugs or alcohol. In fact, there are a range of issues that teens develop when they don’t have a place to live, proper care, and supervision.

Mental Illness Among Homeless Youth


One of the ironic things about homeless teens is that many people expect them to pull it together and find a job. Most people see teens as young enough and fit enough to get some sort of employment and support themselves. However, this thinking is frequently inadequate thinking because it doesn’t take into account a teen’s mental health, history of trauma, and low self-esteem.


In fact, many circumstances play a role in why a teen ends up homeless. For instance:

  • mental illness
  • addiction
  • having little access to services
  • low self-esteem
  • suicidal thinking
  • family history
  • poor family relationships
  • current abuse, domestic violence, or addiction in the family
  • economic hardship


The National Coalition for the Homeless indicates that homeless adolescents suffer from extreme forms of anxiety and depression. In fact, they found that the rates of major depression, conduct disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be three times higher in homeless teen than other adolescents.


According to the National Network for Youth, suicide is the leading cause of death among homeless adolescents. Sadly, although many of these teens are suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness, very few have access to mental health services. In addition to suicidal thinking, homeless teens can also be prone to suicide attempts and self-harming behavior, such as cutting their wrists, burning the skin, and self-tattooing.


It’s important to point out that mental illness is frequently what contributes to homelessness for teens, and it is also what makes it harder for teens to get off the streets too. Simply living on the streets can make mental illness worse. Here are a few reasons why:

  • teens experience higher degrees of stress
  • there is greater access to illicit drugs
  • teens are vulnerable to risky situations
  • teens are at higher risk for physical and sexual abuse
  • teens are more susceptible to being involved in a crime (stealing food to eat)


These are just a handful of contributing factors that make it more and more difficult for teens to get off the streets. In fact, homelessness is can be so hard on teens that some lose their life to it.  It is estimated that 5,000 homeless youth die each year as a result of assault, illness, or suicide.


Homeless Teens in Numbers


Although adolescent homelessness isn’t spoken about, there are a great number of teens across the country who experience some form of homelessness. This includes living on the streets, bouncing from home to home, or who live in a shelter. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a great deal of national research to get accurate numbers. Research is currently underway and soon there should be information reflecting the scope of America’s teen homelessness problem.


The information available now includes what is listed below. Keep in mind that the United States Department of Health and Human Services defines homeless youth as minors who have spent at least one night either in a shelter or on the streets without adult supervision:


These numbers reveal a significant problem. A large number of American teens are sleeping on the streets and going without proper nutrition. Sadly, only 10% of the teen homeless population get served by available resources either locally or federally. Obviously, this does not meet the needs of the thousands of teens without homes.

Finding Solutions


There are organizations and federal efforts that are working to provide better resources. For instance, one program, called the Rapid Re-Housing for Youth, aims to get youth between the ages of 18 to 25 into safe and affordable housing. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, factors that will help solve the problem include:

  • providing teens with stable housing
  • connecting teens to caring and supportive adults
  • giving teens access to medical and mental health services
  • supporting reunification between teens who have run away from home by providing families with necessary services to stay healthy
  • improving the crisis response to teens who call for help
  • providing greater levels of integrated care among local, state, and federal organizations


These are the factors that can help improve teen homelessness. However, if your family has experienced homelessness or if your teen has attempted to runaway, consider asking for professional help. It may prevent homelessness in the future and strengthen family relationships.