PTSD and Homelessness: A Vicious Cycle

Today is National PTSD Awareness Day. For many of us, we associate PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) with veterans who have returned home from combat and struggle with the effects of war. We see movies depicting struggles with flashbacks, night terrors and a constant state of fear that something bad might happen like it did when they were in battle. This has become the public face of PTSD. And rightly so. Our country’s deployed veterans experience PTSD at three times the rate of the general population.[1]

And it is not only veterans who experience PTSD. One in six Americans will experience PTSD in their lifetime.[2] PTSD is defined as a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. [It] may affect mental, physical, social, and/or spiritual well-being.[3] We see men, women and children coming through our doors experiencing PTSD and in need of great care. Their past has brought them to a place where they need extra support on the road to recovery. We are pleased to provide on-site professional mental health care for them. Addressing their mental health is a significant part of disrupting cycles of homelessness.

At the same time, homelessness itself can be the very cause of PTSD in someone’s life. The experience of being without safe and stable housing leads to hypervigilance, anxiety and extreme stress. When a person doesn’t know when their next meal will be or if they will have a place to sleep that night, they can find it harder and harder to cope with life’s demands. They may find themselves in a constant state of fear, just trying to make it to the next meal or morning. Their bodies are telling them: this. is. dangerous.

The more time a person spends in this constant state of stress and anxiety, the more it affects their mental health. The ongoing, sustained nature of this stress is not unlike that of our military veterans. And we see these symptoms at the Mission as men and women begin to heal. Once they are in a safe place to sleep with meals readily available, they begin to move out of their constant state of stress and high adrenaline, and—though it may seem contradictory—their symptoms can increase. Again, like a veteran who is no longer on the battlefield, it is when the threat is removed that coping skills can be more difficult and struggles increase.

That’s why wraparound care with easy access to professional mental health providers provides the best possible path to healing and positive outcomes.

Not only is the stress of homelessness a possible cause of PTSD, but the circumstances of homelessness can expose people to additional traumatic events that could cause PTSD such as rape, sexual assault, violence, serious health problems, or even the death of someone close. Considering that PTSD develops in about 1 in 3 people who experience severe trauma,[4] it is vital that we make sure all people find safe and stable housing as quickly as possible.

The unfortunate reality is that PTSD can lead to homelessness, and homelessness can lead to PTSD.

This is a vicious cycle that we must break as we fight to reduce the amount of time people are experiencing homelessness. With wraparound support, professional mental health care, and the hope of Jesus Christ, we believe progress can and will be made.

[1] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d., Military Risk Factors) PTSD: National Center for PTSD

[2] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d., Military Risk Factors) PTSD: National Center for PTSD

[3] American Psychiatric Association. (n.d. para 1) What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

[4] NHS (n.a.) Causes – Post-traumatic stress disorder