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Homeless Youth and Mental Health

There are countless homeless youth enrolled in schools across the country with specific mental health needs who may be at risk. Over 1.1 million homeless children and youth were enrolled in public schools during the 2011-2012 school year alone, a 71 percent increase since 2006-2007. Homeless youth have a greater number of barriers to face in order to succeed academically and socially, both of which can impact their mental health.

Depression and suicidal ideation among youth is a growing concern. According to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System YRBSS), during the twelve months before the survey, 17% of students nationwide had seriously considered attempting suicide, 13.6% of students had made a plan, and 8% of students had made an attempt at least one or more times. Due to the additional stressors that homeless and runaway youth face, they are especially at risk for suicidal thoughts. A study by Yoder, Hoyt and Whitbeck (1998) found that 54 percent of the homeless youth they surveyed had some level of suicidal ideation.

Teachers, coaches, and other school staff play a critical role in helping students to build resilience and increase their protective factors. Protective factors are defined as “individual or environmental characteristics, conditions, or behaviors that reduce the effects of stressful life events” (CDC). One of the core protective factors for youth enrolled in school is to provide students with the academic, emotional, and social skills necessary to be actively engaged in school. Teachers and other staff can take some of the following steps to enhance these factors for homeless youth:

  • Maintain basic needs: Keep some food, clothing, and extra school supplies in the classroom for students to use. Also, keep them in mind if you are asking students to contribute to  treats or healthy snacks for the whole class.
  • Check in with them: Setting aside time each week to check in with them can help them feel cared for. Whether they are in the classroom or at recess, for the first month (if they are new), keep an eye out for them as playing with other students may be difficult.
  • Provide structure: This may be a completely new environment for youth who are homeless. Be patient and dedicate some time and extra effort to help them understand your expectations and classroom rules and culture.
  • Connect students with support services: These students are often dealing with numerous stressors surrounding their home and school life. Talking with a counselor may help them to feel supported and provide them with tools to help cope.

School staff have the opportunity to help support students experiencing homelessness by providing a stable and supportive school environment. These students have unique needs, are at higher risk for mental health issues like anxiety, depression and suicide, and require extra attention and care.