Why Mental Health Is the Hidden Cost of the Housing Crisis

For six years, Anastasia Miari has suffered from clinical insomnia triggered by anxiety.

Like many other people, financial worries keep her awake at night. The 27-year-old freelance writer lives in a house-share in east London and pays £750 a month for her room, but is considering moving to cut down on her rent.

“I get bouts of real anxiety but it doesn’t come in the form of panic attacks—it rears its ugly head in my sleep,” Miari told me in a recent interview, adding that she only slept one hour the previous night.

“Basically, it is difficult to know how much money you’re going to earn every month and if your rent is super expensive, you can’t afford to save to buy a house. A place has just become available at a friend’s house and it is £100 cheaper a month than mine, but it’s a box room.”

Our homes are supposed to be safe and welcoming places free from the pressures of everyday life, so it’s no wonder that housing problems have a major impact on our mental wellbeing.

High rents, the threat of eviction, overcrowding, substandard housing and financial pressures brought on by the ‘bedroom tax’ (in which tenants in social housing have their benefits reduced if they have a so-called ‘spare’ room) are all issues which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, and which have a knock-on effect on all aspects of our lives from work to relationships.

London is Europe’s most expensive city in which to rent according to recent research by the analytics firm ECA International, but prices are rising across the UK, including in Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. And with increasing rents and stagnating wages comes financial insecurity, which plays havoc with our mental health.

In fact one in five adults in the UK suffer from mental health problems due to housing pressures, according to research carried out by the charity Shelter. In the worst cases, some people reported experiencing suicidal thoughts.

According to the same source, around one in six adults also said that housing problems had affected their physical health too, in the form of hair loss, nausea, headaches and exhaustion.

“Housing and mental health are closely related,” said Helen Rowbottom, policy officer at the National Housing Federation, when I talked to her. “The negative impact of poor housing on someone’s health and wellbeing is well evidenced. In many cases, it can prolong illness and escalate healthcare costs.”

Housing problems not only cause mental health problems, they also have the potential to make existing conditions worse. People with mental health conditions are one and a half times more likely to live in rented housing, according to research by the NHS Confederation mental health network and the National Housing Federation, leaving them at higher risk of rent increases which perpetuate the cycle of stress and anxiety.

In addition, since it was introduced nearly five years ago, the bedroom tax has hit some of the most vulnerable people in society the hardest, leaving tenants in social housing out of pocket just because they have a ‘spare’ room. Three-quarters of people paying the tax have had to cut back on food, according to a report published by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2015. Nearly half had also cut back on heating for their homes.

It doesn’t take much imagination to link these problems to mental illness. Three months after the Department’s report was published, a study in the Journal of Public Health found that all of the residents in one community in northern England—in which 68.5 per cent of the population live in social housing—reported stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of the bedroom tax.

In a recent interview, Gareth Bradbury, a 54-year-old single father from Bolton, told me that his girls were nine and five years old when they came to live with him. The family lived in a three-bedroom house and he worked as a gardener to support his daughters, who went on to attend university.

Then, a string of problems changed Bradbury’s situation. He had a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery, but later went back to work. While cleaning the gutters of his house he fell and seriously injured one of his legs, leaving him unable to work. When the bedroom tax was brought in in 2013, the added pressure on his finances took its toll on his mental health.

“The bedroom tax came in and I have to pay £30 a week out of my benefits,” he said, “but I also need a car to get about so my disability [allowance] pays for that. I have been on meds for depression and I’m still on them. I went for a swap of houses to a two-bedroom house, but got knocked back. I was offered a one-bedroom flat but my daughters still come and stay with me so I could not accept it. I’m stuck paying this forever.”

Against the odds, Bradbury says he has managed to cope. “I got on with my life and now I run a small group of volunteers called Bolton Community Kitchen. We feed the homeless, vulnerable and elderly people of Bolton every Monday night. I’m a lucky one that will bounce back.”

Anne Power, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, told me that the bedroom tax has undermined people’s confidence in their entitlement to the “peaceful occupation of their home,” which is a legal entitlement—a right.

“It has made them feel insecure when they simply cannot afford to pay the additional rent and many people have had to turn to family when they couldn’t meet the rent, increasing the feeling of being a burden,” she said. “Generally, welfare reform has greatly increased people’s sense of anxiety and uncertainty, which is the last thing you need in your home.”

For Bradbury, his community has been a source of support during difficult times. But if you don’t have that kind of support and housing pressures are affecting your mental health, it’s worth getting in touch with Shelter which provides advice on a range of issues, from falling behind on your rent to living in a home which isn’t up to standards.

The mental health charity Mind also covers the impact of housing problems on mental health extensively and can provide crucial support, as can another organisation called Rethink. Speaking to your GP about a mental health problem is always important.

It may also be helpful to contact Citizens Advice, who give free, confidential advice to people struggling with housing issues. Your local council may also be able to help in the form of a discretionary housing payment—an extra payment to people who claim housing benefit—which could help you if your housing benefit doesn’t cover your rent.

Whether it’s the pressure of paying an extortionate rent or financial anxiety caused by the bedroom tax, Britain’s housing crisis is having a serious effect on mental health. What’s worse, this is a problem that is being largely overlooked, and with very dangerous consequences.

When Brenda, from Manchester, was evicted from her home she spiralled into a deep depression. “You blame yourself and you feel a sense of total helplessness. I remember not wanting to go on and wondering if I should end it,” she told Shelter.

Things began to turn around after she spoke to one of the charity’s advisors. “She was the first person who had asked how they could help me. It was the beginning of me taking back some control. I think about that call practically every day. All you need is someone to listen.”

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