Study illuminates the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on youth who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness

TORONTO, October 8, 2020 – A recent survey of front line social service providers across Canada indicates COVID-19 appears to be worsening an already difficult situation for youth who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness. Staff on the front lines are reporting higher instances of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and substance use among the youth they serve.

As access to in-person supports has decreased across the social services sector due to physical distancing requirements, providers are reporting that youth are experiencing increased isolation and loneliness. The impacts appear even more problematic for particularly marginalized youth, such as those who are Indigenous and racialized. The heightened awareness of anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism during the pandemic is perceived to be creating further psychological trauma for these youth. Providers are also noting that some youth are trying to cope through increased substance use, which also puts them at greater risk of overdose as many youth are now thought to be using alone.

These preliminary findings come from ongoing research entitled, Pandemic Proof: Synthesizing Real-World Knowledge of Promising Mental Health and Substance Use Practices for Young People Who Are Experiencing or Have Experienced Homelessness. Dr. Naomi Thulien, assistant professor at McMaster University School of Nursing and nurse practitioner at Covenant House Toronto, is leading the research with Dr. Amanda Noble, Covenant House Toronto’s lead researcher. The study is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and being delivered in collaboration with A Way Home Canada and Lived Experience Lab.

“For some, the social and economic consequences of the pandemic are an inconvenient set-back; for others, they are a matter of life and death,” says Dr. Thulien. “One of the main goals of this research is to highlight innovative approaches to tackling mental health and substance use during the pandemic for youth who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness, so that front line services providers have real-time, on the ground evidence to better address this urgent situation.”

The pandemic has created a significant amount of strain for social services organizations, including Covenant House Toronto—Canada’s largest agency serving youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk—which had to adapt quickly when lockdown protocols went into place. The agency has offered a mix of in-person and virtual/phone services to youth where possible.

According to the study, while these were the best solutions available, it can be challenging for all youth to access mental health and substance use supports when a virtual/phone connection is the primary option.

“Creating opportunities for young people experiencing homelessness to gather safely in social groups where they feel a sense of belonging can be critical to their mental health,” says Dr. Noble.

The preliminary findings point out several ways agencies can better serve the needs of youth:

  1. Taking a more pro-active approach to care, such as ensuring youth who are new to receiving support are made aware of service changes
  2. Delivering a hybrid of in-person and virtual/phone supports
  3. Ensuring adequate staffing levels in place to address staff burnout
  4. Responding to the unique needs of the young people who face intersecting challenges based on factors such as race, gender and sexual orientation.

Like other social service providers surveyed for this study, Covenant House will continue to adapt its approach as the pandemic continues.

About the study:

This project's impetus came from the research team’s desire to understand the rapidly changing landscape of youth homelessness in Canada and to support their colleagues on the front lines. They began this synthesis by amassing on the ground perspectives from 188 providers in nine provinces who serve young people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness, using an electronic survey disseminated from June 10, 2020 – June 17, 2020. Since the survey closed, the team has been refining the synthesis by contributing more qualitative data (focus groups with providers and youth) and further exploring the peer-reviewed literature. The final knowledge synthesis report will be available in November 2020.

The report of preliminary insights is available here.

About Covenant House:

Covenant House helps youth ignite their potential and reclaim their lives. As Canada’s largest agency serving youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk, we offer the widest range of 24-7 services to more than 300 young people each day. As a national leader, we educate and advocate for long-term change to improve the lives of vulnerable youth. This includes influencing public policy, leading awareness and prevention programs and continually building and sharing our knowledge. As a learning organization, we strive for excellence and programs with impact. Since 1982, Covenant House has supported more than 100,000 young people.

For more information, please contact:

Michael Sheiner
Associate Manager, Public Relations
Covenant House Toronto
416-738-0339
msheiner@covenanthouse.ca


Fact sheet

Findings from Pandemic Proof: Synthesizing Real-World Knowledge of Promising Mental Health and Substance Use Practices for Young People Who Are Experiencing or Have Experienced Homelessness1

On mental health:

  • 91% of service providers surveyed believe youth are experiencing an increase in feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • 85% of service providers surveyed believe youth are experiencing an increase in anxiety
  • 75% of service providers surveyed believe youth are experiencing an increase in depression
  • 36% of service providers surveyed believe youth are experiencing an increase in suicidal ideation

On substance use:

  • 69% of service providers surveyed believe youth have increased their use of substances
  • 37% of service providers surveyed believe there has been an increase in overdoses
  • 46% of service providers surveyed believe there has been a decrease in access to abstinence-based services
  • 28% of service providers surveyed believe there has been a decrease in access to harm reduction materials/medication

About youth homelessness in Canada

  • Approximately 20% of Canada’s homeless population consists of young people between the ages of 13 to 24, and at least 6,000 young people experience homelessness every night.2
  • 30% of youth who are homeless identify as LGBTQ2S+, 31% identify as indigenous, 28% identify as being part of racialized communities.3
  • 40% of homeless youth first experience homelessness before the age of 16.4
  • Over 50% of youth indicated that experiences of abuse at home contributed to their homelessness.4
  • 85% of homeless youth have experienced a high level of distress related to their mental health.4
  1. Thulien, N.S., Noble, A., Daley, M., French, D., Hwang, S.W., & Kidd, S. (2020). Youth homelessness: Mental health and substance use during COVID-19 (Report).
  2. Gaetz, S., Dej, E., Richter, T., & Redman, M. (2016). The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
  3. Gaetz, S., O'Grady, B., Kidd, S. and Schwan, K. (2016). Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
  4. Gaetz, S., O'Grady, B., Kidd, S. and Schwan, K. (2016). Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.