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.

 
 
 
 

Five ways in which the rest of the world can avoid the homelessness crisis plaguing the US

Housing for all. Image: Nicobobinus/Flickr/creative commons.

Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, where the number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, yet it is dwarfed by the scale of the issue in the US. More than 500,000 homeless were found across the US during just one night, compared to the UK’s 2017 count of 4,751. Changes in the definition of homelessness and flawed methodologies suggest that the true number for the US could be anywhere from 2.5 to 10.2 times greater.

Millions more live in overcrowded or slum housing, forced to choose between the damage that poor conditions do to their physical and mental health, and the street. All of the US’s housing issues – from foreclosures to evictions to poor conditions – hit communities of colour the hardest.

This is due to a legacy of discrimination, which continues to undercut any commitment to safe and decent housing for all residents, whether in the private or public sector. In my recent book, City of Segregation, I explain how the long, violent history of creating spaces for the white and privileged classes is embedded in a number of practices, which continue in US cities to this day.

Exporting inequality

As private developers and investors seek out urban land in major cities around the world to secure their fortunes, real estate patterns and practices developed within the US are increasingly being observed elsewhere.

In cities as diverse as London, Sydney and Durban, community groups which have been working for decades to improve their neighbourhoods languish with little public or private resource. Meanwhile, developers create spaces for foreign investors and new residents, who anticipate certain protections and privileges such as greater security, high quality amenities and neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds.

This is a driving force behind rising evictions and the criminalisation of homelessness, alongside gated communities, hostile architecture, “broken windows” policing with its focus on prosecuting activities such as graffiti or jaywalking and the growing privatisation of public spaces through regeneration.

But there is still time for other countries to choose a different path. The UK, in particular, can build on the legacies of the post-war political consensus that all residents should have access to quality housing, and its acknowledgement of institutional racism and some history of government anti-racist campaigning.

Both legacies should be improved, but a renewed commitment to a programme of housing and anti-racism are central to increasing equality, prosperity and well-being for all. Based on my research, I’ve come up with five steps which the UK and countries like it can follow, to ensure that future development reduces – rather than drives – homelessness and inequality.


1. Build social housing

Unlike the US, the UK acknowledges a right to a home, and within living memory provided it for a huge swathe of British society. Social housing – whether in the form of traditional council flats, cooperatives or community land trusts – provides a variety of housing types and keeps rents from rising too far beyond wages.

When social housing is widely available, it makes a huge difference to people who – for one reason or another, and often through no fault of their own – become homeless. With social housing to fall back on, homelessness is a temporary condition which can be safely resolved. Without it, homelessness can become a life-destroying downwards spiral.

2. Preserve and expand community assets

Severe segregation in the US stripped entire communities of access to quality food, jobs, education, green spaces, services, banks and loans. Poverty is endemic, and can easily tip into homelessness. While far from perfect, the UK’s post-war commitment to universal provision of services, such as education and health care, and building social housing across all neighbourhoods underpinned a surge in upward mobility.

This achievement should be salvaged from the damage done by Right To Buy – a policy which sold off social housing without replacing it – and austerity, which has prompted a sell-off of public assets and land, as well as the closure of childrens’ services, libraries and community centres.

3. Decommodify housing

A market geared towards building apartment blocks for the portfolios of investors who will never live in them cannot produce the kind of housing and neighbourhoods which residents need, much less at a price they can afford.

While London has been badly affected for some time, this trend is now spreading to other areas of the UK and Europe. Local and national governments must act to prevent global demand for housing as investments from driving prices beyond the reach of those who need real homes.

4. Build communities, not walls

Gates, bars, armed security and homeowner restrictions are all ugly traits of private housing developed within the US context of desperate inequality and racism. The UK has a long and vibrant tradition of community development, creating a supportive built environment and social infrastructure of schools, libraries and other municipal services for residents.

Community assets. Image: Helen K/Flickr/creative commons.

This kind of development, and the social mobility and growing equality it fosters, safeguards public health and safety – not big walls, barbed wire and security guards. The private rented sector in the UK should be regulated to bring it more in line with Europe, where tenants prosper with security of tenure and strong regulation of rents and rent increases.

5. Raise your voice

Those who are bearing the brunt of our current housing crisis must be at the centre of efforts to change it. From tenants’ associations and renters’ unions, to campaign groups such as Justice for Grenfell, it’s vital to support those voices advocating fairer housing rights.

This also means rejecting austerity’s constant cuts to public services, funding social support for physical and mental health and ensuring that homes are safe, decent and secure, to create a safety net for those who are working to improve their communities.

The Conversation

Andrea Gibbons, Researcher in Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.