We’ve long known that the quality of housing is strongly predictive of mental health. So why do we allow people with mental health problems to be placed in lower quality homes?
Sadly, this is not a theoretical problem. Research published by Shelter in 2013 found that people in poor quality housing are more likely to have experienced mental health problems, for multiple reasons. Firstly, you are more likely to be placed into poor quality housing if you have a mental health problem. What’s more, poor quality housing can contribute further to that problem – can, in fact, be the sole cause for that problem.
However you look at it, the over-riding issue is that housing that does not meet the decent home standard is clearly a driving force in the prevalence and intensity of society’s mental health problems.
You could argue that it’s obvious that the lower end of the housing stock is the cheaper end, and therefore more likely to accommodate those of us in poverty – another factor linked to poor mental health. But there’s much more to it.
Poor housing tends to be found more often in the private rented sector, where landlords are often less experienced, less regulated and, of course, less driven by social purpose than social housing organisations and local authorities. We are in a housing crisis, and we simply do not have enough social housing for everyone who needs it. All too often, some of us are left with no other option but to move into low quality private rented properties.
Mind’s latest research has found another possible explanation for this problem. Around 15 per cent of respondents with mental health problems who had applied for social housing said they had experienced stigma from social housing professionals. Some went as far as to say they felt as though they were being put off from applying.
We often hear from people with mental health problems who say that they find it hard to assert themselves in these situations, and find it challenging to navigate the complex allocations process in the first place.
Of course, being in unsafe or inadequate homes can significantly worsen existing mental health conditions, so life becomes increasingly more difficult to manage. We already know that poor housing costs the NHS on average £1.4bn per year, but I’m not sure we talk enough about the links between the quality of the house and mental health specifically.
According to Shelter’s report, coping with damp or cold problems and living in a home that is in a poor state of repair is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. The report states, too, that the design of a home’s communal spaces can also negatively impact if it discourages adequate social interaction.
Feeling safe and secure is another problem. This may, again, be due to the physical failings of the building, such as unsuitable locks or windows – but it can also go beyond material defects. Northumbria University researchers found that people living in privately rented HMOs (houses of multiple occupation) may also feel vulnerable due to the other tenants sharing the home and the associated potential levels of noise and theft.
These issues are enough to cause poor health by themselves – but for people with existing problems these situations are incredibly worrying.
We are therefore asking the government to consider two key changes. Firstly, in the social housing sector where we know standards of housing are higher and more consistent, we want the government to collect data on mental health among social housing tenants. We need to know that people with mental health problems are treated fairly and not left to feel stigmatised. Currently, this data is not consistently collated.
Secondly, we need to ensure that the private rented sector is more carefully regulated. That way, even when social housing is in short supply, we will be safe in the knowledge that private landlords will offer a consistent level of quality and service.
We need to empower people to take a stand and protect themselves from deteriorating mental health. But in order to do this, we need to ensure that people are aware of their rights – and that both the government and the sector have a clear and accurate picture of just how big a problem this is nationally.
Paul Spencer is policy & campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind.
To find out more about Mind’s housing campaign, and the links between mental health and housing, click here.