Stable housing critical to success of mental health treatment

Not having a place to call home can impede successful mental health treatment, says Wilfrid Laurier University professor Geoffrey Nelson, lead investigator on a national project that took a "housing first" approach to tackling homelessness and mental health.

Stable home 'provides a secure base for someone to begin to deal with mental health issues'

Geoffrey Nelson is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. (Geoffrey Nelson)

A Wilfrid Laurier University professor hopes a new approach to deal with mental health and homelessness will change the way cities across the country look at tackling these issues.

Geoffrey Nelson, a professor in the university's psychology department led a four-year research project that studied the viability of using a "housing first" strategy in dealing with mental health in five Canadian cities.

The program offers immediate access to permanent housing for individuals who are homeless and may be dealing with mental illness.

"Having a stable home [and] a place you could call your own really provides a secure base for someone to begin to deal with mental health issues, and with one's life in general," he told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris Wednesday.

Individuals in the program also have case management and support workers who help them secure the housing, as well as work on some of the unique issues they may be dealing with such as mental heath and addiction.

No strings attached

Aside from access to permanent, rent-supplemented housing, there are no requirements for eligibility in order to take part in the program.

Where other programs, shelters, or transitional homes may place conditions such as sobriety or abstinence on their participants, the housing first project does not.

They focus instead on things like harm reduction for people dealing with addiction. This means reducing the negative impacts alcohol or drug use might have on an individual.

Allowing the participants to have their independence puts them in a better position to be able to focus on improving themselves, Nelson said.

During the initial At Home/Chez Soi research project, 2,000 participants in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Moncton, N.B., took part in the program over two years.

Nelson said the pilot was successful and about 75 per cent of participants are still being stably housed within the last six months of the project.

Preparations are now being made to roll out the program in several other communities across the country.