Mental Health Woes Common Among Homeless Kids, Study Finds

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THURSDAY, Feb. 19, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- One-quarter of homeless children in the United States require mental health services -- far more than kids in the general population, a new study shows.

North Carolina State University researchers examined data on 328 children, aged 2 months to 6 years, at 11 homeless shelters in Wake County, N.C.

"We found that 25 percent of the children in shelters needed mental health services, based on their social-emotional functioning," study co-author and Ph.D. student Jenna Armstrong said in a university news release.

The rate is 10 percent to 14 percent among children 5 years and younger in the general population, according to Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty.

Also, the academic and language skills of homeless children aged 5 to 6 were well below average, according to the study published online Feb. 19 in the Early Childhood Education Journal.

"These children have often been exposed to domestic or neighborhood violence, chronic poverty, inadequate health care and other circumstances that place any child at risk of mental health problems," lead author and professor of psychology Mary Haskett said in the news release.

"As a result of their exposure to those difficult life circumstances -- combined with living in a shelter -- homeless children are at a much greater risk of developmental delays, social and emotional problems, and problems at school," said Armstrong, who added that "the scale of the problem is huge."

About 2.5 million children are homeless in the United States each year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

"Children in shelters are often overlooked -- they're basically invisible," Armstrong said.

"But these findings highlight the importance of providing resources to meet the needs of these children. Twenty-five percent of 2.5 million is 625,000. So, we're talking about 625,000 children who need mental health support every year in the United States. We, as a society, can't afford to let these kids down," she concluded.

More information

The National Center on Family Homelessness has more about homeless children.