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Not Many 'Get Well' Cards: Reflecting On Mental Health And Homelessness

22/09/2016 11:34

Mental health problems are often hidden. Unknown to those around them, people may be living with mental illness, whether that's a diagnosis such as schizophrenia or a so-called low level problem like anxiety or depression.

Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of homelessness is also hidden. The shocking sight of people sleeping rough on the streets is one manifestation of homelessness, but there are also many others not visible on the street - sleeping on sofas in other people's houses, living in fear of eviction or re-possession. And the link between mental health and homelessness is striking. While one in four people experience some kind of mental health issue, this rises to eight out of ten amongst people who are homeless.

At the Cardinal Hume Centre where I work, we see over a thousand people each year who are facing poverty and homelessness. Many have problems with their mental health, problems that are made much worse through worries of trying to make ends meet, navigating the benefits system or the imminent threat of becoming homeless. Until I worked at the Centre I hadn't really understood the full extent of homelessness. I had naively assumed that being homeless meant sleeping rough. I'd never heard the term 'sofa surfing' which sounds almost like a fun activity but in reality means sleeping on someone's sofa or floor with little privacy and nowhere to put your belongings. And that's only until you get told you've been there long enough and you have to find somewhere else to stay. Unsurprisingly, this uncertainty takes its toll on people's mental health.

So it was a serious topic with which to launch this year's Mental Wealth Festival. "Mental Health and Homelessness" was held at the House of Lords and chaired by Baroness Hollins. As Lord (John) Bird, one of the speakers stressed, this is a hugely important topic to bring into the House.

The Festival is a collaboration between City Lit (London's largest college for adults) and Beyond Words, a charity providing books and training for people with communication difficulties. The partnership is a tangible reminder of the well-known links between engaging in learning and its positive impact on wellbeing.

Inevitably, Mental Health and Homelessness was one of the more serious events. Members of the panel shared heart-rending stories of people they had worked with, whose mental health problems and homelessness had combined to produce dreadful consequences. Kenny Johnston shared his own story of attempting suicide in the face of relentless hounding by his mortgage provider. He described how he's gone on to create a suicide prevention charity (CLASP) and has been involved in the prevention of 65 suicides. Kenny's story was a sombre reminder of the direct relationship between mental health and having a roof over our head.

Cardinal Hume Centre's Cathy Corcoran talked about the importance of prevention work in homelessness - trying to help people before they reach crisis point. As their worries about housing intensify, people's ability to cope begins to suffer. Support workers need to feel comfortable discussing mental health problems with their clients and proper training is essential.

These were two vast subjects to tackle in a short session but it raised some very thought-provoking issues. How can we improve outcomes for people with mental health difficulties who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness? Getting people talking differently about mental health is key. More training for staff in places like the Job Centre, and housing departments, could help people receive more recognition of their problems. Providing therapies, such as counselling, in different languages is vital for people who don't have English as their first language. And a variety of therapies, such as art and music, would add some creativity into people's lives. Encouraging people to talk about mental health at all, as opposed to physical health, is really important.

The statement that stuck with me as I walked back to work was the observation from Paul Farmer of MIND that you don't see many 'get well' cards on a psychiatric ward. It was a bleak but powerful image of how problems with mental health are so often ignored or 'hushed up'. It's really important to raise the visibility of mental health as part of our overall wellbeing. And we all have a role to play in that.

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