Teen Mood Disorders and Homelessness

It’s hard to believe but adolescents can be homeless too. It’s easy to imagine adults living on the streets; we’ve all seen homeless men and women especially in urban parts of the United States.  Yet, sadly, adolescents and even children are sometimes left without the resources they need, such as food and shelter.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEM), there are about 50,000 youth in the United States who sleep on the streets. And currently, local and federal organizations serve only 10% of the teen homeless population. Obviously, this does not meet the needs of those 50,000 teens without homes.

Yet, the problem isn’t so much that teens do not have a home. The problem is rooted in their mental health, in their addictions, and having little access to services that will help them get off the streets. The National Coalition for the Homeless indicates that homeless adolescents suffer from extreme forms of anxiety and depression, along with low self-esteem. 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. Furthermore, homeless teens are prone to suicide attempts and self-harming behavior, such as cutting their wrists, burning the skin, and self-tattooing. 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 teen mood disorders, very few have access to mental health services.

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. The consequences of teen homelessness include depression and other forms of mental illness, drug use, and often out of desperation, theft and other crime.

Many believe that those on the streets are homeless because they choose to be, because they are suffering with the cycle of addiction, or because of a mental illness. However, Paul Gionfriddo, former Connecticut State Representative and Mayor believes that those who are homeless are not that way because of mental illness, but rather because of the way that mental illnesses are treated.

Last year, Gionfriddo wrote a guest blog about his own adolescent son, Tim, who became homeless because of the way that his behavioral and psychological needs were not met at school. Gionfriddo points out that the pattern has been for teens with psychological disorder to be briefly hospitalized, perhaps move to incarceration if those teens have demonstrated illegal behavior (which is likely with mental illness), and then to homelessness because they often have no where to go.

There is very little integration of the mental health system with the legal and education systems. Gionfriddo recommends that care begin in the pediatrician’s office, then with mandatory screenings at schools, and followed up by special education services for those children and teens who need it. Lastly, mental health service providers in the community should continue to provide care for teen mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This is especially true when those adolescents become young adults. Yet, this sort of integration of services is not yet established.

Part of the problem is the lack of school screenings. School screenings for mental illness has been a recommendation by federal health officials for over a decade. However, it is still not mandatory. Despite the fact that there are schools that do screen for mental health concerns, there is no consistency that takes place among all schools, what age they screen for, and what type of illness they screen.

Gionfriddo ends his blog post with a challenge for this generation: in order to end teen chronic homelessness, policy leaders find a way to facilitate the cooperation of providers in the community so that our children and teens are well cared for.


“Consequences of Youth Homelessness.” National Network for Youth. National Network for Youth, Web. 07 Mar. 2014.

“Homeless and Runaway Youth.” National Council of State Legislators, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 07 Mar. 2014.

“What Is the Official Definition of Homelessness?” National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.

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