Homelessness presents a significant social and economic problem for communities. Homeless individuals rely on government programs, charities, and outreach facilities to maintain any semblance of existence. Levels of homelessness can be partially attributed to lack of available resources for those seeking services, such as affordable housing, shelters, and back-to-work programs but can also be influenced by the mental and cognitive condition of the individual. It is well established that the majority of homeless individuals have struggled with some form of trauma in their lives.
Additionally, nearly all homeless individuals, according to past research, report not having a father figure in their home while they were growing up. And illiteracy has been cited as another common thread among the homeless. All of these factors may influence the level of cognitive functioning and mental health of an individual. And some of these conditions, such as illiteracy, could be the result of mental impairment. But does homelessness itself, a state that often coincides with drug and alcohol misuse, improper nutrition, and violence, contribute to cognitive decline? To answer this question, Graham Pluck, of the Academic Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Sheffield in the UK, assessed the memory and intelligence of 80 homeless people using a battery of clinical and cognitive measures.
He found that of the participants, nearly 20% had extremely low memory and IQ scores, relative to an expected 2% in the general population. He then looked at how long the participants were homeless and found no change in scores relative to time of homelessness. Hughes also discovered that nearly half of the homeless participants had daily drug or alcohol use, three quarters had psychiatric issues, and a quarter had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Although he found no evidence to suggest that homelessness itself increases cognitive impairment, Hughes believes that the factors commonly found in the homeless, such as drug use, violence, malnutrition, and negative affect, sustain cognitive impairment and perpetuate the condition of homelessness. Hughes added, “Potential interventions considering cognitive function could be applied at the local level, to improve the lives of homeless individuals, or increase the chances of successful rehousing.”
Pluck, G., Lee, K.-H., David, R., Spence, S. A., Parks, R. W. Neuropsychological and Cognitive Performance of Homeless Adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 44.1 (2012): 913-15. Print.
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