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How You Can Help: Understanding PTSD in Youth Facing Homelessness: 7 Questions and Answers on Symptoms, Treatment, and More

by Sara McQuaid. Edited by Sumaiya Iqbal


Welcome back to the Canadian Courage Project blog! Thank you for joining us and taking action to become a changemaker in your community. Today’s article is going to examine 10 questions that will help us delve into the complicated relationship between PTSD and youth facing homelessness. As education is one of our core values, we want to bring you 7 questions and answers about PTSD and how to help youth facing homelessness manage their symptoms.

1. What exactly is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as “PTSD” is a multifaceted and often pervasive mental health condition. Unlike newer disorders such as binge eating disorder or hoarding, PTSD is not a contemporary condition and has been recognized throughout the centuries, just not under the term we are familiar with. Famous philosophers such as Aristotle and Homer wrote about soldiers who returned from war having troubling “episodes” and experiencing feelings of separation from the self. In World War One, soldiers would experience what was called “shell-shock” or “soldier fatigue” after returning from horrific trench warfare both mentally and physically debilitated.  

PTSD can manifest in many forms with over 17 different symptoms. Some of the most debilitating symptoms include flashbacks, memory lapses, anxiety, feelings of guilt and shame, or sleep disturbances. These feelings can exacerbate into distorted sense of self, chronic health conditions and nightmares. Children and teens may want to avoid going to school and be reactive during discussions. There are also different kinds of PTSD including Complex PTSD, where the individual experiences frequent or almost non-stop feelings of flight or fight because the limbic system is constantly flooded with stress hormones. Acute Stress Disorder is similar to PTSD but symptoms must last longer than one month.  

3. What are the intersections between race and PTSD? 

Studies have shown that there are distinctive ethnic groups including U.S. Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans/Alaska Natives which are disproportionately affected and have higher reported rates of PTSD among individuals. The experience of racism itself can be extremely traumatic and have long-lasting negative impacts on one’s well-being. 

4. What are some misconceptions about PTSD? 

PTSD is frequently misunderstood, often due to its portrayal in media as solely characterized by flashbacks. As discussed in question four, there is a wide range of symptoms that can physically affect the body. PTSD is truly a physical disorder and can in fact be diagnosed through neural imaging. Here, you can visit a link that explores a healthy brain versus someone who is experiencing PTSD. 

5. How Prevalent is PTSD for children and youth facing homelessness? 

It is estimated between 15-43% of children and teens will experience some kind of traumatic event in their life; it is completely normal for them to experience distress after the event, however, not all will develop PTSD. Children and teens may experience PTSD symptoms from something adults may overestimate such as bullying at school, animal attacks, or a scary medical procedure or illness. According to the American Psychology Association: “The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in adolescents ages 13 -18 is 8% with girls being twice as likely to experience symptoms. The reported prevalence for youth facing homelessness with PTSD is around 18%. Children and teens may experience PTSD symptoms from something adults may overestimate such as bullying at school, animal attacks, or a scary medical procedure or illness. 

6. How do the conditions of facing homelessness exacerbate symptoms? 

The conditions and challenges these youth must endure on the streets exacerbate symptoms. The lack of stability in shelter, and lacking access to nutrition, education and mental health resources all further impact these youth. Having a stable and reliable emotional support system is crucial in managing symptoms. While their animal companions play a huge role in helping them manage their symptoms, they can not always be enough to keep an individual facing homelessness from turning to substance abuse or other harmful methods to manage their PTSD symptoms. 

7. How can youth facing homelessness manage PTSD symptoms? 

There are different prescription medications that can be used to treat PTSD and therapies including Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. These therapies help youth address PTSD-related memories and understand that their trauma is in the past so they can feel safe in the present. However, many youth facing homelessness do not have access to health care or insurance to cover these potentially costly treatments. Instead, they can use other methods such as mindfulness, physical activities and finding social activities they enjoy with a trusted friend so they can talk about how they feel. 

In conclusion

At the Canadian Courage Project, we believe every individual should have access to the resources they need to combat the complex feelings and challenges that come when experiencing symptoms of PTSD. In our various workshops, we provide youth with the tools they need to manage symptoms and feel empowered to feel their best selves every day. Join us in working together to create safe environments and spaces where youth can thrive with their animal companions and overcome overwhelming sensations and feelings of PTSD. In being a dedicated changemaker within your community, you are taking significant strides in improving mental support for those experiencing challenges. 

Thank you so much for joining us on the Canadian Courage Project blog! Stay tuned for future updates and please remember to sign up for our mailing list for future change-making opportunities. 

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