Nearly 70% of young people experiencing homelessness face mental health issues, according to the report "Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America," released by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago late last year. Helping young people addresses these challenges is part of the comprehensive continuum of care provided by The Night Ministry's Youth Housing Programs.
"All of our youth deal with trauma. Even if there hasn't been any specific trauma in the past, becoming homeless is traumatizing in itself," said Nieal Marie Ross, Manager of Supportive Services, Youth Programs, at The Night Ministry. "That trauma can manifest in ways such as depression and anxiety."
Ross said mental health issues can also be contributing factors in youth homelessness. "Many times family members are uninformed about mental illness, and they view symptoms as defiance, anger issues, or laziness, so they kick the young person out of the house."
Through a partnership with Rush University Medical Center, residents of the Interim Housing and the STEPS Transitional Living Programs at The Night Ministry's Open Door Shelter – West Town have access to in-house mental health services, including evaluations by a psychiatrist, medication management, and counseling with post-doctorate fellows, who are available three days a week.
Anthony Monterroso, Case Manager at STEPS, said scheduling and transportation issues have been barriers to youth connecting to mental health services. "Now they don't have to travel very far—it's just a trip down the elevator."
West Town staff said the services offered with Rush, which are expandingto The Night Ministry's Response-Ability Pregnant and Parenting Program (RAPPP), have resulted in a decrease in symptoms and an increase in motivation.
A STEPS resident who sees a counselor regularly said she finds it beneficial. "The therapist I work with has been understanding, and the additional services have been more than helpful."
Anne Rufa, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Rush who coordinates the program, says the post-doc fellows appreciate the environment at West Town. "The youth are pretty no-nonsense. It is an authentic way of approaching treatment."
Staff with The Night Ministry's Youth Programs are acquiring additional resources to assist residents with their immediate mental health needs. Monterroso and Ross are leading trainings in Mental Health First Aid, which Monterroso said is designed to help staff recognize signs of a mental health issue and provide initial help to a young person experiencing one.
"If we can identify the symptoms early, then we may be able to avoid a full-blown mental health crisis," he said. "The more aware people are of what effective supports and treatments exist, the more young people will get the appropriate help that they need."
Mental Health First Aid training will eventually be offered to staff throughout The Night Ministry.