Homelessness and Self-Esteem: The Real Mental Health Issue

Homelessness and self esteem

“The worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy…”

~ Dave Chappelle

We’ve all heard it from time to time, the ridiculous claim that just because a person is homeless, they’re crazy. Like many myths, this statement finds its roots in a shadowy history fueled by corporate greed, misunderstandings regarding mental health issues, and political figureheads making powerplays that worked against the interest of the general public. Also, like many myths, the misconception leans heavily on other misconceptions.

What Are People Really Suggesting About Homeless People and Their Mental Health?

What do people mean when they use the word crazy to describe homeless people? In this context, they are referring specifically to psychotic individuals. The precise definition of crazy as an adjective describing mental health includes the words “wild” and “aggressive” and is compared to words like “demented” and “deranged.” These terms depict violence and are a very convenient way of vilifying homeless people. Anyone wishing to turn a blind eye to the homeless population can seek comfort in believing that everyone living on the streets is not just mentally ill, but also mentally ill in a violent way. A problem to which there is no easy solution.

The Harrowed History of Institutionalized Insanity

Historically speaking, there is an eerie backstory that coincides with this myth. It dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when insane asylums had a reputation for torturing those suffering from mental illness. It is quite true that many of these state-run mental hospitals were ill-equipped and underfunded. Many of the patients there really were mistreated. Many more were misdiagnosed. And, as is all too often the case, greedy corporations and crafty politicians found a way to cash in on vulnerable people’s suffering. They took away state programs and federal mental institutions with the false promise that insanity could be cured through the efforts of local mental health centers.

Of course, this was really an elaborate plan to cut funding from already strained programs. Yet the public was perceptive to it after the horrid conditions of insane asylums were revealed. The end result of this poorly thought out proposal was the mass release of patients who belonged in state and mental institutions. This releasing of mental patients peaked in the Reagan era, but it began many decades prior.

In that time, it was uncommon for people suffering from mental illnesses like depression or anxiety to be institutionalized. Therefore, many of the released patients who found themselves homeless when the institutions shut down really did suffer from more violent variations of mental illness. Henceforth, the myth that homeless people are crazy, as in wild and deranged, came to light. To add insult to injury, then president Ronald Reagan, who was under a great deal of pressure to explain the seemingly new homeless situation that looked to be a direct result of the government closing mental institutions, brought yet another excuse to the table when he said:

“They make it their own choice for staying out there.”

~Ronald Reagan, ABC News, 1988

Above, you will find two unacceptable excuses for a nationwide homeless crisis. One is the notion that homeless people are crazy. The other is the assumption that homelessness is a choice. These two excuses often go hand-in-hand. Or, people who choose not to acknowledge the much harsher reality use them one right after the other. Not only are these statements inaccurate, they are also antiquated, more than three decades old. A lot has changed over the past 30 years.

Today, the entire nation faces a mental health crisis. But, it is not usually violent in nature, nor does it exist solely within the confines of the homeless population.

The Real Numbers from 2019: Less than A Quarter of the Homeless Population Suffers from Severe Mental Illness

While this is still a significant number of people, it certainly does much to shatter the idea that all, or even most, homeless people are mentally ill. Today, homelessness is a complex condition emblematic of multiple structural flaws in our society, many of which are related to a lack of funding on a state or federal level. This translates to funding for things like affordable housing, funding for employment training, funding for homeless prevention, funding for victims to escape domestic violence, and yes, funding for the treatment of mental health issues. In a recent survey, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration determined that approximately 20-25% of the homeless population currently suffers from a mental illness.

The fact that we, as a nation, are undergoing a crisis in mental health should be taken into consideration. In these numbers, we find mental health issues are in no way limited to the confines of the homeless population. Additionally, we learn that modern-day homeless mental health issues are usually of the non-violent variation, with severe depression taking the number one slot. The fact that someone feels depressed because they don’t have a home is not crazy at all. One could argue that being depressed due to homelessness is a mark of sanity, not insanity.

Here’s a Crazy Stat You Won’t Find Elsewhere: Homelessness Causes Mental Health Issues

Never have we, as a society, had such an opportunity to measure ourselves against one another than right now.

In a world of selfies and snapchats, how does a homeless person, whose gaze is often ignored, view his or herself? What does this portrait say about us all, as mental health issues and homelessness both continue to rise? Could one be fueling the other?

According to research presented by Brain & Behavior, “Studies do show that homelessness can be a traumatic event that influences a person’s symptoms of mental illness.”

Factors of homelessness can certainly wreak havoc on one specific aspect of the personality. That is self-esteem. Living homeless in one of the richest nations in human history is already proven to adversely affect all three components that create our portrait of self-value. They are self-perception, social comparison, and reflected appraisals (i.e. the way we perceive others as perceiving us). As you might imagine, this mental portrait doesn’t hold up well to daily problems homeless people face. Many complain about feeling unsafe, unclean, uncared for, and invisible.

Low self-esteem is a circular problem. Left untreated, it can give way to worse conditions like:

  • Suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • Promiscuity and other risky behaviors
  • Self-damaging actions and comments

The psychological effects of extreme poverty are now being studied and documented. Research supports the premise that poverty-stricken individuals have less confidence in their own abilities. They are also more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and self-hate. Heinously, this perception reflects how our society views its poor, all the way down to the youngest of our generation.

A separate study released by the Institute of Education concluded that even schoolteachers perceived poorer students as having lesser capabilities. To that end, many homeless people with low self-esteem aren’t just imagining things. They are, in fact, reacting to the overall public’s perception of them, which is a very sane thing to do.

And while only 25% or less of the homeless population has been deemed mentally ill, an astounding 61% of homeless people interviewed in a population health initiative expressed that they had suicidal thoughts.

What does this statistic say about the kind of crazy we’re attempting to project onto the homeless population?

It might be convenient to envision a person living on the streets as wild, deranged, or just completely psychotic. In reality, it is much more likely that this person suffers from low self-esteem. Rather than bashing windows in a rage, this person is more likely to break down into tears of despair. Low self-esteem is a real mental health crisis that is taking a toll on the homeless population. The very premise of homelessness often causes this non-violent mental health issue. Demoralizing situations such as homelessness can lead to long-term emotional disabilities.

The homeless community, like the rest of our nation, needs help in overcoming mental health issues stemming from an overly critical social structure. Talk to your legislators about getting people this kind of help and about getting people out of homelessness, the condition that is the root cause of their depression.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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