News / Vancouver

Foster care linked to homelessness, mental illness and drug use: B.C. study

Being placed in foster care as a child increases the risk of homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse later on in life, suggests new research from Simon Fraser University psychologists.

The study, the first in Canada to look at the link between foster care and drug and alcohol use among homeless adults with mental illness, was published online this week in peer-reviewed medical journal BMC Psychiatry.

Researchers followed 497 homeless people with mental illness over five years in Vancouver as part of two clinical trials in which participants were asked a series of questions about mental health, substance use, their history of foster care and traumatic events in their childhood.

Of the study participants, 30 per cent reported being placed in foster care as children, the researchers found.

“That’s quite a high percentage,” said Michelle Patterson, the study’s lead author and a clinical psychologist in Vancouver. "There’s a real link between foster care and then ending up on the street.”

The researchers also found that 33 per cent of participants have children themselves who are in foster care, “so it really shows that it’s a real intergenerational cycle," she said.

Patterson said the findings highlight a need for integrated services that treat mental health and addiction together, rather than as separate issues.

When children are placed in foster care, it’s often because of traumatic events like abuse or neglect, she said. Other studies have also shown that early childhood trauma is linked to substance use later on.

The study's authors are advocating for better services to screen homeless youth when they leave the foster care system for substance use.

“Our mental health system is lacking all over the place, but that early intervention stage really needs to be looked at,” she said. “We’re really advocating for more integrated services available to youth and young adults to address problems early on."

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