Talk therapy is a known solution. For folks who have experienced trauma — regardless of the scope or severity — regular, consistent therapy can help resolve or heal old wounds while preventing future patterns that can be detrimental.
In short, therapy is pretty great and everyone should probably try it, but it’s easier to prescribe than it is to actually do. Thanks to hurdles in health care coverage and a shortage of mental health providers (there are, on average, 30 psychologists per 100,000 people in the United States), finding a therapist is surprisingly challenging.
It’s especially difficult when potential patients don’t know where they’ll be sleeping when the time for the next appointment comes.
We know that homeless individuals frequently end up outside due to some kind of mental illness, and that they experience further trauma — assault, abuse, feelings of scarcity and neglect, just to name a few — once they’re on the streets. We know that kids who experience homelessness are more likely to suffer from the effects of “toxic stress,” which can rewire the brain and make decision-making difficult later in life.
These are not just private struggles. The “revolving door” of social services that conservative radio hosts wring their hands over? Research shows it can be simply an entry door with interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
One 2017 report, which focused on recently-homeless men in a group home, found that “all residents reduced incidents of theft, violence and alcohol consumption. Risk to self and others was also reduced for all residents … staff perceived that they could be more effective, less hopeless and therefore possibly less stressed.”
It’s a small study, but it’s also a big deal. Therapy, coupled with housing, really does help make homelessness singular, rather than a pattern.
Unfortunately, in a climate where shelter alone is the goal and lawmakers are hesitant about spending a dime on anything other than cots purchased in bulk, it’s a hard sell. Even our most successful models of housing — low-barrier, permanent supportive buildings — don’t typically have a staff therapist or encourage residents to attend regular therapy sessions.
But maybe that’s part of the problem in and of itself. Maybe if we saw therapy as necessary medicine for everyone, we’d be more likely to make sure the folks who have lived through the trauma of homelessness were getting treated.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a freelance writer and political consultant. Her work has appeared in the Nation, the Atlantic, Bust, Pacific Standard, the Democracy Journal and others. She’s currently working on a book about Lou Graham.
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