A Theory of Mental Health and Optimal Service Delivery for Homeless Children

A Theory of Mental Health and Optimal Service Delivery for Homeless Children

Abstract

Homeless children are a vulnerable group with high risk for developing mental health disorders. The pathways to disorders among homeless children have not been fully elucidated, with significant logistical and measurement issues challenging accurate and thorough assessment of need. The environments of homeless children are uniquely chaotic, marked by frequent moves, family structure changes, household and neighborhood disorder, parenting distress, and lack of continuous services. Despite high rates of service use, mental health outcomes remain poor. This paper reviews the literature on homeless children’s mental health, as well as prior theoretical explorations. Finally, the paper proposes a theoretical model that explains elevated rates of mental health problems among homeless children as consequences of harmful stress reactions triggered by chronic household instability along with repeated service disruptions. This model draws upon existing conceptual frameworks of child development, family poverty, health services utilization, and the biology of stress to clarify the role of environmental chaos in the development of child emotional and behavioral problems. Potential strategies to mitigate the risk for mental health disorders among homeless children and future research directions are discussed.

JOURNAL: Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal
PUBLICATION DATE: 2016