The Case for Further Recognition of Mental Illness in Homelessness

An often overlooked sociological issue is the prevalence of mental illnesses in cases of homelessness; the two attributes have been observed to interplay, and as such, can serve as factors in the furthering of each other. I will be arguing for the societal importance of the issue, reflecting on how an addressing of mental illness’s existence in homelessness is needed. Furthermore, in this essay I will evaluate how imploring the different sociological perspectives of symbolic interactionism, conflict theory, and functionalism allow for the issue to be viewed as the result of varied factors, eliciting new notions regarding the issue of mental illness in homelessness. It is important for society to address and evaluate the prevalent presence of mental illness in homelessness as its lack of mainstream recognition has resulted in non-attuned strategies being utilized in the public sector’s tackling of homelessness

Two establishing attributes that suggest that an analysis of mental illness is required in the evaluation of homelessness are the prevalence of mental illness in cases of individuals affected by homelessness, and the effect of perpetuation between the factors of homelessness and mental status. The point of mental illness and homelessness being factors of perpetuation for each other is supported by Myra Piat’s study on the pathways into, and the barriers in exiting homelessness. Piat’s inquiry involved the qualitative study of 219 individuals affected by homelessness, utilizing an interview style of survey. The results of the study found a central theme throughout survey responses, that, “individual factors, such as substance abuse, relationship conflicts and mental health issues significantly contributed to homelessness” (Piat, 2014, p. 12). The most important aspect of these results is that in each instance of an individual factor being described as a risk, it was tethered to an additional individual factor (Piat, 2014). In instances of substance abuse worsening, and thus worsening the individual’s situation of homelessness, it was found that the cause was often attributed to trauma, family conflict and relationship problems. All of the individual factors listed contribute to a worse mental state, or reflect the symptoms of a worsened mental state and as such, are reflective of attributes of mental illness. Furthemore, responses indicated that institutional barriers become more pronounced when one’s mental state worsens, making it harder to exit homelessness as a cause of one’s mental state. 

The notion of mental illness being prevalent in homelessness is extended through Ann Elizabeth Montgomery’s, “Rethinking Homelessness” in which the current grander understanding of mental illness is attributed to a willingness to no longer overlook it. Montgomery suggests that the current recorded prevalence of mental illness in homelessness is not due to a factor causing an increase in cases, but rather due to a newfound better ability to recognize mental illness (Montgomery, 2013). 

Piat and Montgomery’s studies reflect the notion that mental illness perpetuates homelessness as it is worsened by individual factors experienced by those affected by homelessness, and that the institutional barriers become stronger the more affected an individual is by mental illness. This argument is reflected by a socio-ecological perspective as attributes of an individual’s immediate social environment (personal relationships, personal trauma) have personal effects on an individual which thus dictates how the individual interacts with institutional factors. Individual factors experienced by those affected by homelessness are principal in determining the existence of, and severity of one’s mental illness which then has the ability to perpetuate one’s homelessness as a cause of institutional barriers.

Montgomery’s paper brings up an attribute that is additionally essential to an argument for mental illness’s recognition within homelessness, the current, and past overlooking of mental illness within homelessness. This notion is supported by Bernice A. Pescosolido’s entry in the American Sociological Review. Pescosolido supported this point by depicting the recognition of mental illness throughout the premodern, modern, and postmodern era. In the premodern era mental illness was associated with external factors such as hitting your head or as a cause of supernatural entities (Pescosolido, 2000). This form of thought reflected a society afraid of anything that did not strictly belong, and this was furthered by the fact that it was left to the families of mentally ill individuals to see to their care/integration (Pescosolido, 2000). In the modern era the responsibility moved from families to the institution as asylums became society’s preferred method of dealing with mental illness (Pescosolido, 2000). In the postmodern era however, WWII had caused a recognition of stress being a factor in the development of mental illness . With the social problem no longer being viewed as entirely estranged from society, asylums were deemed horrific with new psychiatric movements exposing their impracticality. The postmodern era thus featured a stripping down of institutional efforts such as asylums without proper methods being put in place of them (Pescosolido, 2000). The historical result of these eras is the current state of mental illness not being properly evaluated in society. If mental illness is improperly evaluated at large, it can be assumed that mental illness within homelessness is overlooked, if not to a further degree. Furthermore, if mental illness has been shown to perpetuate homelessness and yet current methods of managing homelessness don’t take mental illness into consideration, then it is apparent that mental illness in homelessness is being overlooked. 

Pescosolido’s entry’s incorporation into the central argument reflects notions of conflict theory. Conflict theory states that society is in continuous conflict over the limited resources that are obtainable. In the case of mental illness’s history, resources no longer being allocated towards “modern” era mental health institutions but not being allocated to proper external mental health services reflects those in control of capital having the power to determine the fate of the mentally ill. This notion helps to explain the current status of mental illness within homelessness. Situations of homelessness most often come at a direct cause of lack of capital (with many external factors towards this) and since capital is required to remedy mental health it is reflected that mental illness is overlooked in common approaches towards homelessness. It has formerly been left to homeless individuals to deal with their illness on their own, Pescosolido’s entry shows how homeless individuals are unable to remedy their mental health issues, at least not easily, without capital, and thus unable to deter a factor that is largely perpetuating their homelessness. 

The societal relevance of this argument comes from the importance of society addressing the expressed prevalence. This notion is reflected within Piat’s study in which the application of The Housing First Model, a strategy that better accommodates mental illness, found much higher results of those removed from homelessness being able to remain in their accommodations without succumbing to the pathways (Piat, 2014). This application of The Housing First Model reflects an ease within the barriers of homelessness being achieved as a cause of the stratedgy’s focus on mental illnesses and the facilitation of them. Functionalism would dictate that homelessness, although a social problem, is a functioning part of the composed society. As such, the approach dictates that the situation of homelessness can be remedied but the place that those affected by homelessness are serving society is perhaps required for the prolonged functioning of society at large. From Piat’s approach in their study it can thus be reflected that strategies that give more of a focus to mental illness can be more effective in deterring the risks and issues associated with the social problem of homelessness yet cannot entirely remedy the problem. 

Mental illness plays a crucial role in the worsening of homelessness, with both attributes serving as factors of perpetuation for each other. Furthermore, structural contributions to homelessness are additionally at fault for the worsening of the social problem. The relevance of mental illness to homelessness has in the past been, and currently is overlooked, preventing finely attuned strategies to be utilized in the remedying of homelessness. As reflected by the application of functionalism, conflict theory, and a socio-ecological perspective (symbolic-interactionism) homelessness as a societal problem can be remedied but likely never entirely resolved. Structural risk factors and individual risk factors allow for the issue to continually exist in society. These structural factors are reflected through lacking the capital required to acquire accommodations, the prevalence of mental illness in homelessness and the overlooking of it, and the historical marginalization of the minority group of those affected by mental illness. Through giving more recognition to the situation of mental illness present in homelessness, more attuned strategies such as The Housing First Model can heed more effective results in the attempted remedying of the social issue of homelessness. 

Works Cited

Piat, M. (2014). Pathways into homelessness: Understanding how both individual and structural factors contribute to and sustain homelessness in Canada. Urban Studies, Vol 52 (13).

Van Wormer, R. (2005) Homelessness Among Older Adults with Severe Mental Illness. Journal of the Social Environment, Vol 10 (4).

Montgomery, A. (2013) Rethinking Homelessness Prevention among Persons with Serious Mental Illness. The Society for the Study of Social Issues, Vol 7 (1).

Willse, C. (2012) Homelessness, Housing, and Mental Illness. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, Vol 41 (2).

Pescosolido, B (2000) The Web of Group Affiliations Revisited: Social Life, Postmodernism, and Sociology. American Sociological Review, Vol 65 (1), pp 52-76. Retrieved from