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April 1996

Mental Health Problems Among Homeless Mothers: Relationship to Service Use and Child Mental Health Problems

Author Affiliations

From the Departments of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, the University of California at Los Angeles (Drs Zima and Wells); and RAND, Santa Monica, Calif (Ms Benjamin and Dr Duan).

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1996;53(4):332-338. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1996.01830040068011

Background:  The purpose of this study was to describe the prevalence of psychological distress and probable lifetime mental disorders among homeless mothers, their use of services, and the relationship between maternal and child mental health problems.

Method:  The study involved a cross-sectional assessment of 110 mothers and 157 children living in homeless shelters in Los Angeles County.

Results:  The majority (72%) of sheltered homeless mothers reported high current psychological distress or symptoms of a probable lifetime major mental illness or substance abuse. However, few mothers (15%) in need of services received mental health care, and the main point of contact for those with a mental health problem was the general medical sector. Mothers with a probable mental disorder were also significantly more likely to have children with either depression or behavior problems.

Conclusions:  Homeless mothers have a high level of unmet need for mental health services. The relationship between maternal and child problems underscores the need for homeless family interventions that promote access to psychiatric care for both generations.

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