Mental Illness and Survival Strategies Among the Homeless Population

Researchers have long documented the distressing reality of the high prevalence of mental illness among the homeless population. Moreover, it is well known that homeless women are far too often victimized. The survival needs of homeless women sometimes encourage them to engage in survival sex, (“the exchange of sex for money, goods, housing, or other material items needed to remain personally and socially viable”), which can result in further victimization and poorer mental health outcomes.

Researchers Jerreed Ivanich, Melissa Welch-Lazoritz, and Kirk Dombrowski working at the REACH lab analyzed the relationship between mental illness and survival sex in an article recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Their study was predicated on a search for better methods of reaching and studying the country’s population of homeless women. Focusing on three metropolitans, Omaha, NE, Pittsburg, PA, and Portland, OR, Ivanich’s study consisted of a sample of 163 interviewed women from homeless shelters.

The study found that symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) were strong predictors of engaging in survival sex among the female homeless population. In particular, REACH researchers found that impulsivity (strongly associated with BPD) was a significant risk factor associated with a high predictability for engaging in survival sex.

Understanding the link between mental illness and sexually risky behaviors is vital to improving the lives of homeless women. Survival sex can lead to devastating outcomes including the spread of disease, sexual victimization, and increased mental trauma. This confounds the already significant and distressing problem of mental illness among the homeless who often do not have the resources or social capital to seek help. Ivanich’s study is limited due to many factors but provides both a look into a field of research calling for further investigation as well as improved methods for reaching these populations.

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