Why are those with mental health problems more likely to be placed in low quality housing?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.