A homeless man in Tel Aviv.
A homeless man in Tel Aviv. Photo by Alex Levac
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Homeless women in Israel are nearly three times more likely than average adults to suffer from clinical depression or anxiety, according to initial findings of a study conducted by the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem.

Forty-six percent of the women in the study - all of whom were waiting at the time to receive public housing for which they had qualified - suffered from clinical depression or anxiety, researchers found. While the women were on the waiting list, they were squatting or living in homeless shelters or tents.

The levels of depression and anxiety dropped once the women received the housing, but were still higher than the rate among the general population, which comes to 17 percent of Israeli adults.

In addition, 37 percent of the women already living in public housing reported suicidal tendencies and said they have no reason to live, the study found.

"The research indicates a serious social trend," said Dr. Daniel Argo, the lead researcher.

"The results highlight the fact that the incident in which Moshe Silman set himself on fire [at a social protest last month] is not the private despair of a single man," he said.

"Government policy on funding for public housing affects people's morbidity and mortality, and the continued drying up of public housing funds, along with the failure to build a stock of new apartments, puts these people at risk."

The study, the first in Israel to measure rates of mental distress among those facing severe financial difficulties, is consistent with research in other Western countries showing high rates of such distress among the homeless, though each study focused on slightly different parameters.

Researchers in Denmark reported last year that 58 percent of homeless women were depressed. In Japan, 41 percent of homeless people were found to be suffering mental distress last year.

In December 2008, 68 percent of the residents of homeless women's shelters in France were found to be depressed. A similar proportion - 71 percent - of homeless women in Germany were found to be suffering from mental distress in 2004. Two years earlier, U.S. researchers found a depression rate of 48 percent among residents of homeless women's shelters in Los Angeles.

In Israel, researchers also found that many of the women were not being treated for their mental distress.

"These women fear being stigmatized, and they are worried about what will happen to their children if they are taken to a mental health center," said Argo. "If no one goes out to where they live, as we did [to conduct the study], the chances are they won't voluntarily get the help they need."

The local study began in 2007 and was conducted under the supervision of Itzhak Levav of the University of Haifa and Moshe Abramowitz of the Eitanim Mental Health Center.

The clinical evaluation of the subjects' mental state entailed 90 minutes of interviews and psychiatric questionnaires. Some of the interviews were conducted in the tent cities that went up last summer as part of a countrywide protest against the high cost of living in the country.

The subjects included dozens of women living in public housing and dozens more who had qualified but had not yet received such housing - most of whom were living in Jerusalem.