Depression and Stress in Street Youth

By Ayerst, Sandra L. | Adolescence, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Depression and Stress in Street Youth


Ayerst, Sandra L., Adolescence


ABSTRACT

The present study explored stress and depression levels in Canadian street youth, as well as the methods they used to cope. Twenty-seven street youth and 27 nonrunaway peers responded to a questionnaire investigating history of running away, depression level, coping strategies, family history, and stress. Analyses revealed that stress and depression were positively correlated for the street youth, and that these youth had higher levels, compared with non-runaways, of both. There were also differences in coping strategies: street youth were more likely to engage in acts of self-harm and to use drugs and alcohol, while nonrunaways more frequently resorted to productive problem solving and disclosure/discussion with someone they trust.

"Street kids" have become the fastest growing segment of the homeless population (Brannigan & Caputo, 1993). The transient nature of this group makes it difficult to obtain a precise count; however, Missing Children of Canada has estimated that there are over 50,000 Canadian youth living on the streets (Rehak, 1995).

Research has explored why youth leave home to live on the street. Fewer studies have examined the effects of homelessness on youth (e.g., Foley, 1983; La Gory, Ritchey, & Mullis, 1990; Roberts, 1982; Stiffman, 1989; Zingaro, 1987), especially when it comes to Canadian street youth (e.g., Brannigan & Caputo, 1993; Feder, 1991; Smart & Walsh, 1993). The present study investigated depression and stress in a Canadian sample, as well as the coping methods they used.

Street youth may be defined as those between the ages of 12 and 25 who are caught in a cycle of homelessness (Murie, 1992). The pattern often begins when youth run away from home or from a child-care facility (or are expelled). The most commonly cited reason for leaving home is family environment (Brannigan & Caputo, 1993; Kufeldt & Nimmo, 1987; Shane, 1989; Webber, 1991). The family system is frequently characterized by high levels of conflict, abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), financial insecurity, familial substance abuse, parental divorce or separation, and lack of communication.

These youth may alternate between living on the street and a variety of temporary locations, including friends' homes, shelters, abandoned buildings, and rooming houses. Within this cycle, they can become entrenched in the street subculture, where they face the prospect of violence and sexual assault, as well as initiation into, or increased participation in, substance abuse (Brannigan & Caputo, 1993). Street life is further characterized by the day-to-day struggle to meet basic needs (food, shelter, and basic hygiene) and, often, to acquire drugs to numb emotional pain (Webber, 1991).

As with other homeless populations, street youth have been found to experience higher levels of depression when compared with nonrun-away peers (Brannigan & Caputo, 1993; de Man, Dolan, Pelletier, & Reid, 1993; Roberts, 1982; Smart & Walsh, 1993; Stiffman, 1989). Powers, Eckenrode, and Jalditsch (1990) found that the depression level of street youth with a self-reported history of maltreatment was 20% higher than that of a national sample of nonrunaway youth. Smart and Walsh found that the best indicators of depression in street youth were low self-esteem and the amount of time they had spent in hostels. La Gory, Ritchey, and Mullis (1990) found a high correlation between homelessness and depression, and attributed the higher ratings of depression to the stressors inherent in life on the street, lack of social support, and ineffective coping methods. Street youth themselves have suggested that their daily struggle for survival and the reasons behind their homelessness contributed to depression (Shout Clinic, 1995).

Level of stress has also been explored. Roberts (1982) found that street youth had higher stress levels, both before and after leaving home, than did their nonrunaway peers.

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