Lawson study provides choices to homeless youth with mental illness and addiction

June 5, 2013

For youth, mental illness, addiction, and homelessness can often go hand in hand. So which issue should be treated first? Now in its last year, a four-year study is putting that choice in the clients’ hands. Lawson Health Research Institute’s Dr. Cheryl Forchuk has launched the Youth Matters in London project, following over 180 homeless youth who are living with mental illness and/or addiction.

To best suit young people’s diverse needs, the study gives the following three options for treatment or service: 1) housing first; 2) treatment first; and 3) simultaneous attention to both housing and treatment. In addition, youth can choose a separate starting point if none of the three options match their needs. Over the course of the four years, participating youth are interviewed, invited to peer support workshops, and given the choice to change their service option.

Decisions are made based on a participant’s perception of their needs to achieve success in both treatment and housing. Some believe success in one area can only come after success in another, while others believe they need help in both areas simultaneously. “Although it’s overwhelming to do both at the same time, it’s near impossible to stay mentally healthy while homeless and vice versa,” one participant stated. “One eventually destroys the other.”

The client’s choice is complimented by other initiatives such as peer support workshops. In the past year, 24 workshops have taken place, focusing on issues like coping with stigma and obstacles to employment. Guest speakers and youth mentors help to facilitate the workshops, giving youth the power to discuss things that matter to them. In addition, a rent gift program has been launched, which sends gifts of $50 to the landlords of the clients who are in the most desperate need of help.

According to Dr. Forchuk, “Our goal is to change the system.  It’s not just to find out what’s going on now, but we’re asking, ‘How can we do it better?’”

The study is working to develop effective options in helping homeless youth by examining who chooses which treatment and why, and then examining their outcomes. Attempts are being made to implement youth preference service selection and results are ongoing.