Homelessness is caused by traumatic events, and often leads to traumatic events, creating compounding layers of complex trauma that have serious consequences, often having a significant impact on mental health. The isolation and aftermath of the pandemic have exacerbated these dynamics and stressors.
For example, recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data show that high school students experiencing homelessness were more likely to have feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and to resort to self-harm and attempted suicide more often than their peers who do not experience homelessness.
In fact, students experiencing homelessness were three times more likely to attempt suicide compared to stably housed youth.
Despite their heightened risk for self-harm and suicide, children and youth experiencing homelessness face barriers to accessing mental health services: high mobility, lack of transportation, and lack of connectivity can prevent them for getting the help they need. If students experiencing homelessness are not identified by schools, they miss out on critical protections and services — including mental health services. This is particularly troubling because for many students experiencing homelessness, school is their sole mental health services provider, and may be their only opportunity to receive caring, individualized attention from adults. Without intentional and specific inclusion in and prioritization for school-based mental health efforts, some of our nation’s most vulnerable children and youth are unlikely to receive the help they desperately need.
Specific strategies for identifying and reaching children and youth experiencing homelessness.
1. Include school district homeless liaisons, designated under the McKinney-Vento Act, as a priority source of referrals to early identification and intervention programs and school based mental health and wrap-around services.
2. Ensure that basic needs are met, so that students can attend to their mental health. Children and youth experiencing homelessness may need help accessing food on the weekend or evenings, basic hygiene, and clothing. American Rescue Plan – Homeless Children and Youth funds may be used for store cards and in other ways to support basic needs.
3. Provide flexible options to meet the mental health needs of highly mobile students, for example:
- On-site mental health providers that can take walk-ins during the day, so students can fulfill other obligations after school
- Mobile mental health services to rural areas to remove transportation barriers
- Virtual mental health options with the technology to access virtual services
4. Address issues of parental consent for youth who are homeless but not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian (unaccompanied youth).
5. Use American Rescue Plan, Title IV-A, and other funds to increase access to mental health services for students experiencing homelessness. For example, youth experiencing homelessness often struggle to maintain functioning cell phones and cell phone plans, and may not be able to access suicide hotlines that provide support and save lives.
School districts are using ARP-HCY funds to support the mental health needs of students experiencing homelessness in a variety of ways.
Mental health services provided in school buildings during school hours
- Middletown Public Schools in Rhode Island partners with the community-based organization Newport Mental Health.
Mental Health Coordinator partners closely with the homeless liaison
- Marion County Schools in Alabama ensures students experiencing homelessness have access to the mental health support provided to all students.
Unaccompanied youth will have access to two years of mental health support
- Provided through the district in Durham, North Carolina.
Use of Camp Cope-A-Lot, to support mental health, stress and anxiety.
- Ridgefield School District in Washington state purchased this online-curriculum to meet the needs of their students’ mental health.
Local agency to provide private mental health services to students experiencing homelessness
- Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in Alaska is contracting with a local partner to fill this need in their community.
Mental health program that provides homework support and small group counseling
- Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland is using funds to support this twice-a-week program for two and a half hours for elementary-aged students staying in shelters.
Partnerships for mental health and case management services with local universities
- Taos Public Schools in New Mexico is using funds to provide supervision and stipends to graduate students to administer these services.
Bilingual mental health services to immigrant youth experiencing homelessness
- Shakopee School District in Minnesota is providing groups to help students with addressing the trauma of their immigration experience, offering support for self-care, and providing space to manage and work through trauma.
Part-time Mental Health Clinician
- Clifton Public Schools in New Jersey hired this position to specifically support students experiencing homelessness. The clinician meets with students once a week during the school day.
What action steps can schools take to support the mental health of students experiencing homelessness?
The following action steps were suggested by young people who experienced homelessness and trauma in high school.
1. Normalize mental health.
Talk about mental health openly and often. Youth noted that “destigmatizing depression, anxiety, and mental illness, in general, would be a big step in the right direction. Nurses and counselors could visit classrooms and discuss the commonality of things like this.
2. Increase awareness of existing counseling services and mental health supports.
Many students may not be aware that schools have counselors they can speak with in confidence. If they are aware, they might not feel comfortable in their ability to access those programs and services. For example, only 48% of African American students reported feeling like they were able to reach out to a teacher about mental health concerns, compared to 57% of white students.
3. Invest in staffing.
Schools need to “have enough staff that students are able to make personal connections, and to help foster informal check-ins.” It takes time for McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons, school counselors, social workers, teachers, nurses, and others to build trust with students. Such investments in students’ emotional health must be valued and prioritized. Schools and districts can use the American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth funds to hire more counselors and social workers and/or add hours specifically to work with students experiencing homelessness.
4. In addition to providing staff and resources to ensure student mental health needs are met, schools should offer support that acknowledges that students of color disproportionately encounter stress and mental health needs.
Hire staff and counselors of color who can empathize with student needs, and know that not all students of color have the same mental health needs. Several schools and districts have implemented “grow-your-own” programs to recruit former students to work in schools as educators and counselors.
In Washington state, Wahluke School District’s Academia Bilingüe de Wahluke actively recruits bilingual graduates to serve as teachers. Research shows that the risks for mental health issues in students of color are reduced by having teachers with similar backgrounds, which can help students experience a positive school environment and high levels of social support.
5. Increase school-based mental health supports and services.
Offer school phones in private locations for students to call suicide hotlines whenever needed. Youth experiencing homelessness often struggle to maintain functioning cell phones and cell phone plans, yet suicide hotlines provide support and a listening ear that literally save lives. Create school-based peer educational training programs to inform young people about depression and suicidality and to support students experiencing these risk behaviors.
6. Respect youth autonomy.
A consensus among youth surveyed was to “let students know what resources are available to them. Be clear about the procedure followed when students disclose [suicidal thoughts] so they can make an informed choice about disclosure—don’t force interventions that students don’t want, [and] let them know what they need to do to avoid them. [Not] allowing students to safely disclose suicidal feelings is more dangerous than allowing someone to leave after disclosing.”
7. Review all school policies to ensure they are trauma-informed.
It’s paramount to specifically consider the trauma and needs of students experiencing homelessness.
All hotlines listed are national hotlines providing 24/7 support across the United States. For a complete list of crisis intervention helplines, click here.
We’ve compiled a robust index of resources for you to learn more about mental health and how it can present obstacles for our children and youth, especially those experiencing homelessness. If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, or in need of medical, emotional, or physical support, there is help available.
Student Mental Health
- 3 Bold Steps, Promoting Student Mental Health
- National Alliance on Mental Health, Navigating a Mental Health Crisis
- eSchool News, 3 No-Cost Ways to Support Mental Health in Schools
- Zero to Three, Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health
- Mayo Clinic Health System, Infants have mental health needs, too
- Emerging Minds, What is infant mental health, why is it important, and how can it be supported?
- Child Care Technical Assistance Network (ACF-HHS), Infant-Early Childhood Mental Health Supports for Homeless Children and Families in Child Care Settings
- ACT, Supporting the Mental Health and Well-Being of High School Students
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, Understanding Suicide: Outlining Basic Characteristics
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Preventing Suicide: The Role of High School Teachers
- US Department of Health and Human Services, Adolescent Mental Health Basics
- Centers for Disease Control, Mental Health-Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years during the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Center for American Progress, Mental Health Supports for Students of Color During and After the Pandemic
- Mental Health America, Back to School Toolkit
- Thomas Fordham Institute, How Schools can Return from the Pandemic with Strong Mental Health Supports in Place
- Inside Higher Ed, The Key Podcast – Ep. 95: Redefining Mental Health for Today’s College Students
- The Hunt Institute, Supporting Mental Health within Institutions of Higher Education
Black-focused Mental Health Resources
- AAKOMA Project
- The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation
- BEAM: Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective
- Black Mental Health Alliance
- Center for Healing Racial Trauma
- National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide (NOPCAS)
- For The Gworls
- NAMI: Sharing Hope
- The Confess Project
- The Loveland Foundation
- The Steve Fund
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Therapy for Black Men
Native-focused Mental Health Resources
LBGTQ+ Mental Health Resources
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
- GLAAD: An Ally’s Guide To Terminology
- You Matter: How To Be A Straight Ally
- It Gets Better Project: Hope For LGBT Youth
- The Trevor Project
- Trans Lifeline
- Mental Health and the LGBTQ Community Stats
- Trans Student Educational Resources
- LGBTQ and ALL
- DDH Online Peer Support Communities