Sunday 22 October 2017

Comment: We are not prepared for the mental health epidemic this housing crisis will lead to

Danielle Carroll
Danielle Carroll
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Our sense of home acts like a magnetic field.

A ballast, tethering us down and giving us a feeling of place, and belonging.

Every other aspect of our life radiates from it – the place we work, the schools we go to, the stores we shop in, the people we live with and next door to.

In both practical and psychological terms – our sense of home roots us; and forms the backbone of our identity.

Displacement from our homes reverberates deeply within us, and can knock us off course and out of kilter.

It was shelter and belonging that Danielle Carroll (27) craved.

The remains of Danielle Carroll are taken from the church after her funeral Mass Photo: Gerry Mooney
The remains of Danielle Carroll are taken from the church after her funeral Mass Photo: Gerry Mooney

A “little house” where her two sons DJ (7) and Carter (20 months) could “have their own beds”, and rest their heads.

Having spent months living in a hotel room in Leixlip, Co Kildare, it looked like she had found just that, a Dublin council offered her a small, boarded-up red brick house in Tallaght.

The previous owner had taken their life in the property, but for Danielle it offered some sense of hope and a place where she could watch her young family grow.

“She was finally looking forward to moving in,” her mother Margaret said. “Only for her hopes to be dashed.”

A tribute to the young mother of two boys. Photo: Gerry Mooney
A tribute to the young mother of two boys. Photo: Gerry Mooney

A week before she was due to move in, the council withdrew its offer and substituted Danielle’s house with an alternative property.

This house came with problems; there had been a suspected arson attack, people had been squatting and sleeping rough inside, and it was located in an area of Dublin Danielle felt threatened and unsafe in.

According to Margaret, Danielle begged the council to rescind on its decision – she told her family she thought she would end up dead if she moved there.

“She felt it was a hopeless situation. She was struggling. She went off the rails with worry and she would say that nobody cared about her,” Margaret said.

Danielle died by suicide on Friday last week. “I’ll miss her not coming through the door. Instead of coming here with her boys she’s going into a hole in the ground,” her mother said.

It would be reductive to suggest the housing crisis alone led to Danielle’s death, but as the housing crisis continues the direct line between homelessness and mental ill health becomes more pronounced.

In the last two weeks, four homeless people have died in Ireland in tents, or hostels, or on street corners.

According to the director of services at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Tom Maher, the correlation between homelessness and mental health difficulties is “blindingly obvious”.

Between the years 2006 and 2016, St Pat’s has recorded a 37pc increase in the number of people with no fixed abode being admitted annually to psychiatric units.

Dublin Simon’s Health Snapshot for 2013 showed that 71pc of its clients had a diagnosed mental health difficulty, of which 22pc had a diagnosis of psychosis or schizophrenia.

That’s significantly higher than the general population, where approximately 1pc of adults have schizophrenia.

Mr Maher stresses that within the bracket of homelessness, there is a difference between those who are ‘roofless’ and those who are ‘houseless’.

Those living on the street for a number of years are ‘roofless’, while individuals living in limbo in Direct Provision, or sleeping in hostels and hotels are ‘houseless’.

The latter group is a recent phenomenon – one which our Government is struggling, and failing, to cope with.

“We have no history of homelessness in Ireland,” Mr Maher said. “Certainly not on this scale. We are simply not prepared for the mental health epidemic that this housing crisis will lead to.

“The impact long-term homelessness is having on children is not being addressed.

“We are storing this problem; we are not dealing with it.”

This week it emerged there are now 3,000 children homeless in Ireland. In Dublin, the number increased by 153, from 2,270 in June to 2,423.

On ‘Morning Ireland’ an emotional young girl spoke about the stigma of walking through the school gates with the weight of homelessness hanging over your head.

“It’s hard to fit in and find someone who will accept you and your troubles. If you get to the stage where you can open up about this situation and the homelessness, there’s still the sense of ‘will they be your friend, or will they find you scum?’”

While a family can live in a hostel or hotel room, it doesn’t lend itself to family life; a hotel room is not a communal living area; there are no washing machines, or cookers, no fireplace or TV room. No bedroom where you can escape your parents and listen to music at full volume.

“Everybody should have a home,” the schoolgirl said. “Where they can walk in the door and smell their mother cooking their dinner. That’s what we miss.”

Homelessness affects children on many levels; socially, physically, emotionally and cognitively.

Drifting through different houses, children and adolescents lose their community support systems, adversely affecting their participation in school.

On top of this, the emotional strain they are under while they consider confessing or concealing their home life is momentous and intensely isolating.

“Being homeless is a form of solitary confinement that takes place in the open,” UCD sociology Professor Tom Inglis said.

“If you belong to a minority group there is a sense of bonding there. But the homeless in Ireland are not a community, they are a category. One which most are desperately trying to get out of.

“Even if you hate where you live, or your family, it helps define who you are. If you don’t have a home it can be difficult to know who you are.”

The corrosive impact homelessness has on individuals is almost impossible to comprehend if you’ve always had a roof over your head.

“Those with the security of a house simply cannot understand the grinding depression and anxiety this causes,” Mr Maher said.

“When someone is homeless and suffers with mental health issues they face double the amount of stigma.”

This June, Mental Health Reform and the Dublin Simon Community launched a report which aimed to highlight the difficulties homeless people face while trying to access mental health as a result of bureaucracy.

In the report were case studies from homeless people talking about their experience of living on the street.

“You wake up in the mornings and you’re on your own,” one said. “God, I hate it, hate it… I’d wake up in the mornings crying. I mean, how could that be? I’d wake up crying.”

Another spoke about a feeling of no escape.

“I reckon within a couple of months I’ll probably be dead. It’s better, in my mind… I don’t want to be going the way it’s going. I’m ducking and diving from no one.”

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