Homelessness and mental health in Canada

Aug 2021 | Homelessness Other

Experiencing homelessness in Canada, even for a short period, has a direct negative impact on physical and mental health. Living without the security of a home, regular meals, and proper hygiene can exacerbate existing health issues. Poor health can make it even more difficult for people facing homelessness to get back into stable housing. It can also cause new health issues in someone with no issues prior to losing their housing.

Overall Health

The connection between health and poverty has been well documented and researched in Canada. There is no question that experiencing poverty and/or homelessness can contribute to health issues. Being without a home also makes it near impossible to consistently treat or cope with illness or injury. 

Simple common injuries, like cuts and scrapes, can have a higher risk of infection. Exposure to extreme heat and cold can lead to sunburn, heatstroke, frostbite and hypothermia. Lack of a balanced diet can result in poor nutrition, contributing to chronic conditions. As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s also an increased chance of contracting an infectious disease or virus.

Of even greater concern is the vulnerability of unsheltered people to violence. According to the Homeless Hub, a survey in Toronto, ON found that 40% of people who were homeless had been assaulted, and 21% of homeless women had experienced sexual assault. Learn more about violence and homelessness.

The lack of access to health care further amplifies health challenges. Even though basic healthcare is free in Canada, people facing homelessness cannot always access proper healthcare or may receive limited treatment due to discrimination. Inability to pay for health services that are not free, like dental care and eye care, causes further issues. Not visiting a dentist annually often results in tooth decay and oral health issues. 

When a vulnerable person does receive treatment, it can be very difficult to adhere to medical care without routine, clean water and showers, access to prescription refills and medical equipment. For these reasons there is a high number of hospital emergency visits, adding to rising healthcare costs. 

Mental Health 

People with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety are more prone to becoming homeless because:  

Delusional thinking may disaffiliate people from family, friends, and other support systems, while impairing the resiliency and resourcefulness required to keep a stable housing environment. 1

Facing homelessness can also exacerbate or even cause mental illness because of the difficult conditions and stresses of the environment. The 2020 Point-in-Time Count reported that 61% of those experiencing homelessness in Nanaimo are also struggling with mental health issues. 

Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is caused by “a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain” and most commonly results from falls, motor vehicle traffic crashes and assaults. 2

According to the 2020 Nanaimo Point-in-Time Count, 24% of people facing homelessness in Nanaimo have reported having a brain injury. 

The Brain Injury Society of Ontario reported a study that found 58% of homeless men and 42% of homeless women to have a brain injury. This population is at risk for experiencing seizures, mental health problems and poorer physical health. They often don’t get the proper support or resources for treatment and recovery. Many may not fully realize they have had a brain injury. There is not enough research to determine if TBI increases the risk of homelessness or if homelessness increases the risk of TBI. 

For local support, the Nanaimo Brain Injury Society has help, information and programs to help people living with brain injury.

The impacts of homelessness on Canadians are very concerning and the connection between health and homelessness highlights the serious need for increased affordable housing and improved services in order to end homelessness. Learn more about solutions to end homelessness in Nanaimo.

  1. Homeless Hub
  2. Traumatic Brain Injury in the Homeless Population: A Toronto Study

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