Battered and Bruised Minds Lead to Homelessness

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Homeless U.S. military veterans wait for free warm clothing to help keep winter's chill away last November in Denver.

The Department of Veterans Affairs first-ever large-scale study of homeless vets shows that the vast majority of homeless vets have mental disorders. “Majorities of the newly homeless diagnosed with mental disorders…were diagnosed before they became homeless, indicating mental disorders usually occurred before homelessness,” the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general said in a report issued Monday.

Troops deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom tended to have more mental problems than troops that didn’t see combat. “Within the homeless and domiciled veteran sub-populations and across gender, a higher percent of OEF/OIF veterans was diagnosed with mental disorders and some of its specific disorder categories than their non-OEF/OIF counterparts at the end of the study,” the study says. Such mental disorders, the IG concludes, are the gateway to homelessness. “Presence of mental disorders (substance-related disorders and/or mental illness) is the strongest predictor of becoming homeless after discharge from active duty,” the report said.

Dealing with veterans’ mental health may be just as important in preventing homelessness among vets as dealing with their lack of housing. “We found that 78–83 percent of the newly homeless diagnosed with mental disorders at the end of the study, were diagnosed before they became homeless,” the report said. “Thus, it may be beneficial for VA homelessness primary prevention efforts to focus on the treatment of veterans with mental disorders as well as on their housing risk.”

In January 2011, 67,495 vets were without housing at least one night during the month. Elimination homelessness among vets – especially among those who have fought in the post-9/11 wars and come home to a poor economy – has been a major issue for the VA.

The six categories of mental disorders studied by the IG were anxiety disorders, PTSD, adjustment disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders. The report also found:

— Roughly half of the homeless vets who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have some sort of mental disorder.

— Mental ills affect even more – about 60% — of the homeless vets who served after 9/11 but didn’t go to war.

— The rate of their mental ailments is about double that suffered by vets living at home.

— Male vets with traumatic brain injuries or PTSD are three times more likely to be homeless than vets without TBI or PTSD.

The study followed more than 300,000 never-before-homeless vets — who left active duty between July 2005 and September 2006 — through October 2010 to see how many experienced homelessness. Roughly 4% ended up homeless at some point in the five years.

“We observed that about half of the newly homeless occurred after 3 years discharged from active duty,” the IG said. “This suggests a window of opportunity for preventing veterans from becoming homeless after discharge from active duty.”