Addiction, mental health and homelessness

As I have mentioned before, it was wanting to address mental health issues, where I could see there were glaring gaps in terms of the services provided, that set me along the road of being a full time community activist. I wrote about this in my “Spirituality and Mental Health” book (downloadable here). One of its sections is titled “Addictions” and forms a background and a context to what I am about to write here. While I have found that mental health is a significant aspect in my present work among the homeless, the same could be said on the subject of addictions. Back in those early days, I remember thinking that even if addictions may not be regarded by some experts as being mental health issues, it was quite evident then that addictions lead to mental health problems and mental health problems sometimes lead to people becoming addicted. Sometimes this gives rise to the “what comes first – the chicken or the egg” scenarios, and the perplexing conundrum of those with a dual diagnosis too often falling through the gaps, as we find many do.

While I became aware of some of these issues a long time ago, nowhere are the devastating effects of addictive behaviour more evident than in the realms of homelessness. It seems to me that being an addict of whatever can help drive people to homelessness, and once when a person becomes homeless he/she is drawn toward an addictive lifestyle, often as a means of escape from the hopelessness and other feelings that impinge on mental health that is often being felt. As a worker at the coal face as it were among the homeless population of my town, I come across many who are addicted to something and most want to escape their addition. Many try and for a time look like they are succeeding, only to fail and go back to where they were or worse. One of the consequences is that it becomes even more difficult to dealt with the plight they find themselves. On a practical note, I often find dealing with someone currently feeding an addiction, e.g. they are drunk, hard to deal with and having to turn them away because of the health and safety implications of others, like when I manage a homeless night shelter.

The biggest “addiction” issue is alcohol. So many of the homeless people I meet have a drink problem and sometimes it is an acute one. So often it can be observed that the homeless person one is dealing with is biding time for his/her next alcohol fix. When last weekend I was in the High Street, I noted half a dozen people purporting to be homeless begging and, moreover, people were giving them money. I am pretty sure in most of those cases, that money would have been later spent on drink (or drugs) and some at least had some form of accommodation. But how low can people stoop and in part this is as a result of alcohol. While drugs are less of an issue, in my experience, compared with alcohol, it is still an issue, even if only a minority are on hard drugs. What is becoming an issue is Legal Highs, and even in recent weeks we have seen the dire consequences of people taking this. Gambling and pornography appear to be less of an issue for the homeless, although I suspect there are some who find themselves on the street as a result of gambling. Outside the homeless arena, alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography are big issues in many different areas, which I need to make a note of and this will be a subject of a future blog.

The first thing to say by way of conclusion is that there are no simplistic solutions. Those of us who care about the plight of the homeless must not ignore that being addicted is a major issue for many, and helping our homeless friends of their addiction habit is a major challenge. One of the most rewarding aspects of working in this field is when this happens (even in the past week a few have made it clear this is what they want and they will do what is needed to make it happen – a challenge to all of us). There is a need for compassion, empathy and wisdom as well as connecting each other to what is good and wholesome, but also tough love (not only do the addicts destroy themselves by feeding their addiction but they harm those around them who are near as well). I can point to the need to tackle availability (all these forms of addiction are nowadays readily available), for accountability, the merits of the “12 steps” programs, for care and understanding, and to the one who said that he can set those in bondage free. And so the work continues …

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