The Disturbing Link Between Brain Injury And Homelessness

The Disturbing Link Between Brain Injury And Homelessness

A new study finds that almost half of homeless men surveyed suffered a traumatic brain injury in the past -- most of which occurred before the men lost their homes.

The finding could lead to a greater understanding about how current behavioral issues among the homeless could in fact be rooted in an injury that happened a long time ago, said lead researcher Jane Topolovec-Vranic, Ph.D., to The Huffington Post.

Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto surveyed 111 homeless men and found that 45 percent of them had suffered at least one traumatic brain injury (or TBI) in their life, and 87 percent of those injuries occurred before they were homeless. Among the general population, TBI rates are estimated to be 12 percent, according to a 2013 meta-analysis of studies from developed countries.

"I'm not saying that traumatic brain injuries will lead to homelessness," said Topolovec-Vranic. "It's very complex, and there are a number of factors," like mental illness, substance abuse and poverty.

"But the data do show that the majority of these men sustained at least one injury before they became homeless," Topolovec-Vranic continued. "And for the most part, on average, these injuries occurred in early teenage years."

Traumatic brain injuries can range from mild to severe. Most concussions, for instance, are an example of a mild TBI. Severe TBIs, in which the brain moves against the skull or is injured by a penetrating object, can impair cognitive and motor function. They can also cause people to fall into comas or have amnesia.

Topolovec-Vranic's study found that most of the study participants had suffered only mild to moderate TBIs at some point in the past.

The participants were recruited from a downtown Toronto men's shelter and aged 27 to 81. Forty-four percent of total TBIs were sustained during sports or recreation, while 42 percent were from car collisions or falls. The largest share of TBIs, however, was from assault (60 percent).

For men under 40 years old, the leading cause of TBI was drug or alcohol blackout, while in those over 40 years old, assault was the leading cause of TBIs.

Because 70 percent of the TBI injuries were sustained as a child or teen, there is a take-home message for parents, too, said Topolovec-Vranic. If you're a parent of a teenager who may have sustained a concussion or traumatic brain injury, for instance, be sure to watch for sudden dramatic changes in behavior or personality. Topolovec-Vranic admits it can be a struggle to stay vigilant, however.

"It's such a difficult time because there are so many dramatic personality and behavioral changes that happen in those teenage years," said Topolovec-Vranic. "It might be difficult to link it back to having had an injury, and sometimes kids don't even tell their parents they've had their concussions."

Topolovec-Vranic's research echoes another recent Canadian study published in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation that found up to 61 percent of homeless or "vulnerably housed" people have also suffered a TBI.

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