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Youth Homelessness and Mental Ill-Health Intrinsically Linked

Photo of youth sitting in a group 8 August 2023

Young mental health advocates and Victoria’s biggest youth homelessness provider Melbourne City Mission (MCM) are pleading for the State government to fund housing for 16-to-25-year-olds who are trapped in homelessness – many of whom suffer mental health crises because of it.

According to March 2023 data on young people coming to MCM for homelessness support, four in 10 (40.7 per cent) 16-24-year-olds experienced a significant and episodic mental health crisis, with many instances so severe they led to emergency department presentation.

In some MCM crisis accommodation programs, the rate was as high as seven in 10 (70.6 per cent) young people. Most often, mental health distress was ongoing, repeated, and exacerbated by homelessness. Of all young people in MCM’s crisis programs, almost nine in 10 (87.1 per cent) had experienced family violence.

CEO Vicki Sutton said, "They are extraordinarily vulnerable. Most of them are escaping family violence and a background of trauma."

“We are pleading for State and Federal governments to address the barriers to the mental health system for young people experiencing homelessness, and reform the youth mental health system to ensure it accessible for young people in crisis.”

At 16, Ollie became homeless. For 18 months he lived in transitional housing and couch surfed. His mental health suffered significantly and combined with substance abuse he found himself at hospital emergency departments on more than 10 occasions.

Now 19 years old, Ollie has a job in the youth sector and has stable housing. Having a safe place to call home for the past two years has allowed Ollie to reset and readjust to being “a regular young adult”, and he hopes that others like him can have a similar positive outcome.

"I think the reality is that in the current approach to mental health … something really needs to change to make it possible for more young people who have been in circumstances like I was [to get better]," he said.

According to the 2021 Census, more than 122,000 Australians were homeless. Alarmingly, almost one in four (23 per cent) people experiencing homelessness in Australia is aged between 12 and 24. Of the 12,000 15-to-24-year-olds who came to a Victorian Specialist Homelessness Service alone in 2021-22, many had complex mental health issues linked to and often driven by their experiences of homelessness at such a young age.

92.5 per cent of the young people who came to MCM’s youth crisis access point, Frontyard, in 2021-22 were flagged with having a mental health issue while 58.7 per cent had a mental health diagnosis.

“At a bare minimum, Victoria needs at least 5,000 medium to long-term homes for the young people who came to a homelessness service last year but missed out on a safe home because there weren’t enough. Investing in youth housing will provide young people with mental ill-health with a safe and secure base to focus on recovery and building their future,” Ms Sutton adds.

Evidence shows that young people need less mental health support once they find secure, supported housing. Data shows that over 12 months of living in MCM Youth Foyers, young people’s vulnerability and support needs, including mental health support, reduced by more than half (52 per cent).

Ms Sutton believes the group has been left behind. They're trapped in a cycle of homelessness with really significant mental health that is not well served by the mental health system and that just means their mental health deteriorates further.

Various barriers mean today’s mental health systems are not accessible for young people experiencing homelessness, who are the “missing middle” identified in the Victorian Royal Commission into Mental Health. The reform of the youth mental health system called for by the Royal Commission has not yet been addressed and is urgently needed.

"We have had some significant investment in Victoria around mental health, but it hasn't prioritised the youth mental health system," Ms Sutton said.

"We're really calling for a refocus and a prioritisation … on addressing the barriers for young people experiencing homelessness."

Ms Sutton said things could get much worse for young people without secure housing.

"The worst case is they spend so long trapped in the homelessness system they end up graduating into adult homelessness, and at that point their chances of really recovering their mental health and rebuilding their education and employment opportunities are so much harder," she said.

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