Study finds majority of homeless adults with mental illness have high rates of cognitive deficits

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Study finds majority of homeless adults with mental illness have high rates of cognitive deficits

Toronto, January 26, 2015

Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos
Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos

Nearly three-quarters of homeless adults with mental illness in Canada show evidence of cognitive deficits, such as difficulties with problem solving, learning and memory, new research has found.

The study–believed to be the largest of its kind –assessed neurocognitive functioning indicators such as mental processing speed, verbal learning and memory in 1,500 homeless adults in five Canadian cities.

The findings were published online by the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

“This points to an often unrecognized problem for the segment of Canada’s homeless population that suffers from mental illness,” said Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos, chief of psychiatry at St. Michael’s Hospital and a scientist in its Centre for Research on Inner City Health.

“These are the skills that people need to follow treatment or support recommendations, maintain housing stability or successfully complete day-to-day tasks.”

Each year up to 200,000 Canadians are homeless. The prevalence of mental illness among homeless individuals is much higher than the rest of the population, with more than 12 per cent suffering from severe mental illness, 11 per cent having mood disorders and close to 40 per cent reporting alcohol and drug addictions.

All of the participants in Dr. Stergiopoulos’ study experienced mental illness. About half met criteria for psychosis, major depressive disorder and alcohol or substance abuse, and nearly half had experienced traumatic brain injury.

Older age, lower education, psychotic illness, being a visible minority and having a native language other than English or French were associated with poorer cognitive performance; however these indicators could explain only part of the neurocognitive difficulties observed in this study. Traumatic brain injury and substance abuse were not associated with lower cognitive functioning.

“The data doesn’t help us to predict whether someone will have cognitive challenges, but it does show that if they experience homelessness and mental illness, it’s very likely,” said Dr. Stergiopoulos. “It adds to our understanding about why people may have difficulty accessing or keeping housing.”

Dr. Stergiopoulos noted the study is important for those who work directly with disadvantaged populations because it highlights that adaptations and improvements need to be made to treatment and support options. Lack of engagement is not necessarily because someone doesn’t want help, but may be because they don’t understand how to access or make use of it.

“Front-line staff may need more training in how they work with this population,” said Dr. Stergiopoulos. “It reinforces the necessity to understand the needs and strengths of disadvantaged populations so that we can help address them.”

In a series of tests to assess neurocognitive performance, seven of 10 participants experienced problems with verbal learning and memory, and four of 10 experienced problems with speed of information processing and executive functioning, an umbrella term for cognitive processes such as reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving and planning and execution.

“While cognitive remediation practices are in place in some specialty settings, we need to design better strategies that include programs for homeless people,” said Dr. Stergiopoulos.

Participants were recruited from the At Home/Chez Soi study, a four-year project aimed at providing support to Canadians experiencing homelessness and mental health problems in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Media contacts

For more information, or to arrange an interview with Dr. Stergiopoulos, please contact:

Leslie Shepherd
Manager, Media Strategy, St. Michael's Hospital

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