Even though public awareness about mental health and mental illnesses has grown substantially over the past 5-10 years, instances of mental health problems still run rampant through many parts of our society. One vulnerable group that is particularly susceptible to experiencing mental health issues is our country’s homeless population.
It has long been shown in the research that the homeless population in the United States experiences mental illness at significantly higher rates than the national average. According to studies, an estimated 25-30% of chronically homeless individuals battle some kind of mental illness.
This stark reality plagues not only the homeless community but the various public health, law enforcement, and civil service systems that are charged with caring for the most vulnerable individuals in our society today. Mental illness is a complex and nuanced landscape.
For the government entities that share responsibility for helping homeless populations, it is a critical area of understanding and expertise. Thankfully, our government engages with mental health needs in various ways.
Government-Backed Systems that Support Homeless Mental Health
“Public Health” structures are a primary way that the government attempts to provide adequate health care and support for those that may not have strong access to healthcare on their own or through employment or family. Public health relies on an interconnected network of entity types that exist throughout the private and public sectors. These entities include medical institutions like hospitals and outpatient clinics, educational institutions like primary and secondary schools along with higher education, nonprofits, and charity organizations, and more.
Public health administrators might be found employed at any of these organization types. Public health policy is created and handled at the Federal, state, and local levels of government. Public health professionals engage in helping form and reform health policies that pertain to how health is maintained across populations. Thus, homeless health and mental illness would fall within their purview.
The Various Difficulties that Affect Homeless Healthcare
Providing homeless individuals with mental health support at scale can create a number of complications.
Securing Resources for Medical Examination and Diagnosis
Most homeless individuals don’t have insurance, nor do they have the resources needed to pay out of pocket for medical examinations. Obtaining ongoing medical support for mental illness usually requires a diagnosis, so this part of the process needs to be accommodated some other way.
Medication and Care Distribution
Without addresses or permanent residences, it can be difficult or impossible to attend appointments in the same area, receive or fill prescriptions, or secure ongoing medical care without the assistance of public health programs and support.
Logistical and Practical Implications of Homelessness
As mentioned above, not having a permanent address or residency can make some parts of the medical care process difficult or impossible that those who have an address don’t have to think twice about. In addition, things like transportation to and from medical facilities, keeping medications safe and secure, and more can be difficult or impossible for homeless individuals without support.
Language and Literacy Complications
Many homeless individuals may have poor or nonexistent reading skills. Many others are English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers and may struggle to understand, speak, read, or write in English.
Law Enforcement Interactions with Homeless Individuals
Law enforcement officers often find themselves engaging with the homeless population in various ways. Because this is the case, education, and awareness about mental health and how to interact with individuals who suffer from various mental illnesses is extremely important. Officers who don’t have at least a basic understanding of mental health and how it works can exacerbate difficult or potentially harmful situations when interacting with homeless individuals who have mental illnesses.
How Public Health Offerings Support Homeless Individuals
These and more are the kinds of challenges that public health officials who serve homeless populations face. Meeting these needs and creating structures and processes that can effectively serve homeless populations with mental health problems is no small task. Solutions to problems and complexities like the ones above often involve:
These offerings equip various professionals with the awareness and tactics that can help them engage appropriately and effectively with this population. From police officers and other law enforcement officials to medical care providers and doctors, making sure public servants are prepared to engage safely with homeless individuals with mental health problems can make a huge difference.
Transportation and Housing Initiatives
These types of offerings can look drastically different from municipality to municipality. Sometimes they are provided by nonprofit organizations or charities. Sometimes they are predominantly government-funded. Whatever the system may look like in a particular locale, understanding, managing, and improving these kinds of programs can be a huge part of guaranteeing adequate healthcare for homeless individuals.
Asset and Resource Management
This is another huge part of the public health sphere. From fundraising to grant allocation and administration, it takes ample resources to make all of this care happen. Part of a public health professional’s job can often involve helping steward and manage resources.
Connecting Organizations and Providers Together
Part of public health management includes making various organizations and entities aware of each other. An organization that provides hot meals needs to know where to refer homeless individuals who might need urgent medical care or that are trying to find a rehab facility. Helping various entities within the landscape understand and talk to each other is a huge part of making the system work well.
The Real Power Behind Our Government Structures: Room for Improvement
The best part about government-provided health care initiatives is that they can always be improved upon. Whether at the local, state, or Federal level, the government is structured to be constantly revised, updated, and sharpened to better meet the needs of its people.
Taking a job in government can be one effective way of being involved in bettering public health provisions for those who want to make a difference for this vulnerable population.