The road to adulthood can be a tumultuous journey, with a range of challenges to overcome. Some may be a normal part of adolescence, such as the shifting of seeking support from family to friends, study stress, or fine-tuning and exploring their own identity. But we know that for too many young people, their road to independence can be burdened with extra challenges, such as experiencing mental illness and family conflict, which can lead to episodes of couch surfing away from their family.
Couch surfing is often the first and most common way that young people experience homelessness.
Couch surfing is often the first and most common way that young people experience homelessness. We know that adolescents who couch surf – that is, when they stay for short periods of time on couches, floors or in other insecure housing situations with relatives or friends – are at a greater risk of homelessness for longer periods later in life.
For many young people who feel they can’t go back home because of family conflict, violence or for a range of other reasons, what may start as sporadic couch surfing can unfortunately turn into more entrenched homelessness.
For many years here at Mission Australia, we have advocated on behalf of young people using our Youth Survey as a platform to gather their concerns, values, thoughts and aspirations.
In 2017, we co-authored a Youth Survey report with the Black Dog Institute which looked at young people and mental illness over the past five years. We also produced a report on young people and homelessness. I found both reports to be incredibly concerning, with almost one in four young people reporting mental illness (a significant increase from five years ago) and a shocking one in seven young people reporting couch surfing.
In our Youth Mental Health and Homelessness Report that Mission Australia released in 2017, we took a deep dive into these findings to see how mental illness and homelessness were linked.
The likelihood that a young person would spend more occasions away from home increased if s/he had a probable serious mental illness.
What we found, was that young people with a probable serious mental illness are three and a half times more likely to have spent time away from home than those without a probable serious mental illness. The likelihood that a young person would spend more occasions away from home increased if s/he had a probable serious mental illness. While we weren’t surprised at the findings as it is what our staff and the sector see every day, I am very concerned about the impacts that homelessness and mental illness has on these young people.
The report also highlighted the importance of nurturing strong family relationships to ensure young people are protected from being pushed into homelessness. Young people who reported a probable serious mental illness as well as poor family functioning were far more likely to spend time away from home than those young people who had a probable serious mental illness but had positive family relationships.
Early action to address the issues that lead to young people leaving home is vital. We need to play our part in actively building strong family relationships, ensure schools are equipped to pinpoint students who may be in need of extra support and provide targeted support and early intervention when it’s needed.
We know that when young people have safe and secure homes, this provides a firm foundation where they can grow and thrive. It allows them to build strong social relationships, and to study, learn a trade or embark on their chosen career.
There are a range of evidence-based specialist services that can effectively support young people experiencing homelessness to find their way, connect them to expert help, reconcile with family if that’s safe and possible, or if not, find supportive accommodation tailored for young people. Unfortunately, the people who work in these services are over-stretched and under-resourced. But with greater investment, more young people can be supported on their journey to a brighter future.
It’s now urgent that we invest heavily in targeted and holistic early intervention services so we can best address the issues faced by young people before they become homeless, as well as boost investment in social and affordable housing and supported accommodation for young people.
Major investment in supporting youth mental health initiatives is incredibly important if we are to reduce the numbers of young people being pushed into homelessness.
I’m sure you’ll agree that the findings in this report are concerning and Mission Australia strongly urges governments of all levels to commit to ending youth homelessness. Major investment in supporting youth mental health initiatives is incredibly important if we are to reduce the numbers of young people being pushed into homelessness.
Every young person deserves a safe home and a chance at a fulfilling life. And we have the means to provide it. All that is needed is the political will and the commitment from us all as a community.