Conor (45) has already spent most of his adult life between prison and homelessness. The Belfast native who has complex mental health needs was brought up in the care system and endured multiple traumas throughout his life.
Difficulties Conor experienced in his early life automatically made him more vulnerable to mental health challenges. In his twenties, Conor was subsequently diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and used alcohol as a way to self-medicate.
Mental health problems can have a negative influence on homelessness and although Conor was diagnosed with mental health problems before falling into homelessness, he wasn’t receiving the support he needed. The stress and trauma of being without a home exacerbated his existing mental health issues.
“I didn’t have a stable childhood and became extremely violent because this is all I knew. I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD in my twenties which was really hard to live with. I didn’t care about anything, was sleeping on the streets and not taking any medication. The problem with PTSD is that it kills relationships – I didn’t like anyone. It was a really difficult time.”
Five years ago, on being released from prison, Conor found himself homeless once again. He had nowhere to go, no family to turn to and was forced to sleep under bridges during heavy snow and freezing temperatures.
“All I had was a sleeping bag. I walked around Belfast looking for somewhere to live, slept under bridges, in car parks and even slept in the snow and experienced the intense pain of the coldness. It was horrific.”
“It’s hard for people who are homeless to find accommodation because people judge them. Homeless people are human beings; they all need help.”
“There should be a lot more understanding of mental health problems and homelessness. A lot of people are damaged, people need to realise this and show more compassion.”
Conor has sadly also endured the heartache of losing two brothers to suicide and believes we should normalise conversations about mental health and open ourselves up to it.
“It helps to talk. Every month, I go to a grief therapist to help me deal with it. I’m very open and tell her everything. I think it’s important that we’re all more open about it. My two brothers didn’t talk about their problems.”
“The experience of losing two people close to me was awful on top of everything else – it took a long time for me to process and I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what I did.”
The homeless population in Northern Ireland has always experienced difficulty accessing mainstream mental health services, partially due to many of them presenting with dual diagnosis.
If Conor could change one thing about mental health support in Northern Ireland, it would be to make it more available. Conor continued to use alcohol as a way to self-medicate for years, until the right support was provided through Depaul.
Mental health problems can make everyday tasks more difficult for individuals like Conor and that includes maintaining a tenancy. Conor has been with Depaul for the last five years and through the expertise, support and compassion of the team, Conor has been able to maintain his tenancy and reduce his dependency on alcohol.
The Depaul Housing First model has been extremely effective in facilitating individuals like Conor to access and maintain a permanent home, ending the cycle of movement between emergency services and rough sleeping.
With Housing First, the priority is to support a person who has experienced homelessness into permanent housing as quickly as possible, without any preconditions around addiction or mental health treatment.
Although Conor is receiving help through Depaul, he admits that his mental health hasn’t been great in recent weeks.
“Some days I am really angry and punch the walls. A single bad memory can set me off. I blank people when I feel bad, and don’t want to be in contact with anyone. It puts you in a terrible depression.”
Conor is hoping that better days will come. He has begun to turn his life around and is looking forward with a positive view.
“I want to forget about the past, lingering in the past isn’t healthy. I know I have suffered but this is not the end.”
To support Conor and others in homelessness suffering with mental health issues, please donate today.