The interplay of social needs and mental health/illness was very evident amongst young people in this group, who described their 'mental health' issues as including:

  • inability to meet everyday survival needs - housing, money, health
  • high experience of abuse, mental illness in the family, personal drug use.
Several of the young people who were interviewed indicated that they had attempted suicide, sometimes on more than one occasion, and/or had overdosed on drugs.

Several young homeless people indicated they had a diagnosed mental illness and were on medication. Some were able to articulate that it was often hard to distinguish the effects of everyday struggles from mental health issues and vice versa:
    'It's everything all in together, you can't get on top of things.'

Help-seeking behaviour

Young homeless people frequently indicated that they relied on workers at youth drop-in centres for referral, basic needs, general counselling and support. These were distinguished from social workers, case workers and even youth refuge workers. Numbers of these young people indicated that they would rely exclusively on the youth centre worker (often one particular worker) to deal with any problems; they would generally 'trust' a referral to some other source of support if it were made by that worker. The good things about youth workers of this kind were said to be that they were non-judgemental (even if they set limits which you kept breaking), they provided practical help, they were able and willing to at least attempt to meet basic needs such as housing and food, you knew they were on your side and would go out on a limb for you, you could keep coming back even if you were doing stupid things to yourself, you could just hang about and raise issues when you felt comfortable to do so, and they knew about street life and did not suggest silly or unworkable solutions (like going home or talking to your mother or father). A number of these young people indicated that unless services or workers operated in these sorts of ways they simply would not use them, or might use them only as a last resort.

Psychiatrists, particularly in the public system, were frequently dismissed by these young homeless people as being naive, judgemental, ignorant of youth culture, easy to fool, ignorant around drug taking, unaware of child abuse issues, ill-informed about issues of sexuality, not to be trusted and likely to breach confidentiality.

A number of young street people were particularly scathing about their experiences of being admitted to psychiatric hospitals after attempting suicide subsequent to leaving home because of an abusive situation in the family, only to find that the psychiatrist insisted on family consultations. For example:
    'I would have thought it was obvious. I left home because of abuse and took drugs and overdosed. I was fourteen wandering the street for god's sake. The next thing I know I'm in this hospital and the first person the psychiatrist calls is my mother. I told him not to but he just ignored me. They both came in, my mother and her boyfriend and then the psychiatrist stopped talking to me altogether. I may as well not have been there. She's spinning all this bullshit and so I started to as well. I was so pissed off I just told him a load of crap and had them all going. They actually discharged me home to them. I just ran away again and did it all over again [attempted suicide/hospitalisation].
There were several reports of being kept in hospital for extended periods - up to several months - because staff were not able to find a place in a more appropriate residential setting:
    'They eventually kept me there for almost four months. I think they just didn’t know where to put me.'
Several people referred to difficulties experienced with mainstream support services. For example, one 18 year old woman described how, after overdosing on several occasions in the city, she had moved to a country area to get out of the city and bring up her baby. She described the difficulty of trying to mix with 'normal mums' at a support group run by the local mental health team:
    'Look I was at the Cross on the streets when I was 13. Places like Oasis [drop-in street centre] down there were good. They knew what you were on about. All this stuff with these other mums is OK but we just don't come from the same planet. They don't know nothing. I wouldn't go back to the life because of my baby, but I tell you, at least in the squat you had people to talk to.

Resource information needs

Several of these young people commented that apart from more places like youth drop-in centres, they thought that they needed encouragement from the experience of people like themselves to help them see that there were other ways of doing things:
    'We want to hear from street people who have made it.'
    'You need some hope, you need to know you can get through it - only someone who has been through it can really convince you you can do it.'
One person referred to a problem with printed information because of poor literacy among young people, and suggested that health workers should hold information workshops advertised by word of mouth:
    'Pamphlets don't work because people can't read, but if they just spread the word around over a few weeks that they were holding a workshop about health things on a certain day, people would hear about it and come.'