MORE THAN HALF OF HOMELESS CHILDREN HAVE SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- School-age children who are homeless have higher rates of mental health problems than other children, research suggests.
Researchers found that, of 46 homeless children aged 8 to 12, 57 percent had symptoms of depression, while 13 percent met the criteria for clinical depression. Boys seemed to be particularly at risk.
"Normally, we only expect 10 to 15 percent of children to have mental health problems," said Edna Menke, author of the study and an associate professor of community, parent-child and psychiatric nursing at Ohio State University. "The homeless children in our study had a significantly increased risk of depression."
Children account for approximately 38 percent of the homeless population in the United States. Past research has shown that children from impoverished environments are vulnerable to depression.
The study appeared in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing.
Menke and her colleagues studied 46 homeless children and their mothers, identifying them from Columbus-area agencies that provide help to homeless people and from families they found living on the street. Children were considered homeless if their mothers believed the family to be homeless and if they were living in a shelter, a cheap hotel, a homeless agency apartment, an automobile or on the streets.
The sample included 26 boys and 20 girls -- 31 children were Black and 15 were white. Each mother participated in an interview regarding her family and the experience of being homeless. Each mother also filled out the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), while each child completed the Children's Depression Inventory (CDI).
The CDI is a 27-item questionnaire regarding symptoms of depression in children. Possible scores range from 0 to 54; a score greater than nine indicates the need for further mental health assessment. Twenty-six children (57 percent) scored greater than nine, while six children (13 percent) scored greater than 18. The latter group met the criteria for clinical depression, according to Menke.
The CBCL, a 138-item questionnaire filled out by the mothers, evaluates behaviors that suggest mental health problems. Scores of 70 or higher indicate a need for further evaluation. The children in Menke's study averaged a score of 56. Of the 12 children with CBCL scores greater than 70 (26 percent), six had scores on both questionnaires that indicated they were at risk for mental-health problems.
There were no significant differences in scores between the Black and white children on either questionnaire. However, gender was linked to the presence of depression and other mental health disorders. When the researchers compared the homeless children's CDI and CBCL scores to the scores of a group of normal, non-homeless children, they found that the homeless boys' scores were significantly higher than the non-homeless boys. The difference was especially striking for behavior problems such as hyperactivity, acting out and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The homeless boys averaged 12 on the CDI, vs. nine in the normal group; they averaged a score of 58 (vs. 50) for the CBCL. The scores of the homeless girls were not significantly higher than those of the non-homeless girls.
"Homeless boys may be at greater risk than the girls for depressive symptoms and mental health problems," Menke said.
Also, the researchers found no correlation between the CDI and CBCL scores. "Parental evaluation is usually not a good indicator of a child's level of distress," Menke said, adding that homeless parents may be occupied by worries such as trying to find housing and work and dealing with other issues of poverty.
"These children live in extreme poverty," Menke said. "And that may have detrimental effects on children's cognitive, emotional, physical and psychological health."