Maltreatment, Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Written by Abby L. Goldstein, Touraj Amiri, Natalie Vilhena, Christine Wekerle, Tiffany Thornton, and Lil Tonmyr. Publisher: University of Toronto. 2011.
This study examines the relationships between childhood maltreatment, involvement with the child welfare system, mental health issues, and substance use as they relate to youth homelessness and housing instability. It was conducted using a sample of youth who were involved in two projects the Youth Pathways Project (YPP) and the Maltreatment Adolescent Pathways (MAP) Longitudinal Study. The sample population for this study contained three groups; youth involved with the child welfare system, youth who are homeless and have had experience with the child welfare system, and homeless youth that have no experience in the child welfare system.
The purpose of this study is to provide information which can be used to establish programs and policies or enhance ones already in place with respect to meeting the unique needs of youth who are homeless or are transitioning out of the child welfare system and are experiencing or are prone to mental health and substance use issues.
The authors provide context to the study by briefly discussing the issues of homelessness, maltreatment, substance abuse, concurrent mental health issues and substance use, child welfare involvement and homelessness, and pathways to substance use and mental health issues. They note that at any given time, there are approximately 65,000 Canadian youth living on the streets. Most youth who are homeless report a history of childhood maltreatment and state that it is the main reason for leaving home. As expected, a large number of youth experiencing homelessness deal with concurrent mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and aggression) and substance abuse issues.
The results of this study show that both childhood maltreatment and involvement with child welfare services may contribute to youth homelessness, and that youth leaving the child welfare system may not be adequately prepared to handle this transition. It was found that homeless youth who have had prior involvement with the child welfare system are more likely to be without shelter than homeless youth who have not had any involvement with the system.
One of the surprising finds of this study was that youth in all three groups reported that they felt fairly safe in their current living situation. With respect to mental health issues and substance abuse, the results showed that the rates of substance use and abuse as well as mental health issues are higher among homeless youth compared to the general population. Researchers also identified a relationship between perpetrating partner violence and concurrent mental health and substance use issues.
The authors conclude the study by making several practice and policy recommendations with the overall goal of identifying, treating and preventing mental health and substance use issues amongst youth in the child welfare system by increasing screening and monitoring. They suggest that more research should be conducted on risk factors and to detect patterns of homelessness. The authors state that this study uses a small sample size of 219 participants, all of whom were located in Toronto, Ontario. Further research in this area could include a larger sample size of participants located in other urban areas in Canada, such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary or Winnipeg. This would determine whether these issues are similar in other regions or whether the findings provided in this report are unique to this particular sample.
This study would be useful for academics conducting research in related fields, individuals working with public policy (researchers, analysts, and advisors), youth shelters, counselors, and any individuals who would like more information regarding the issue of youth homelessness in Canada.
Reviewed by Diana Varvis