Mental health and social housing: responding to the current crisis

By Will Howard, housing and health officer, HACT - on 21/05/2020

It will come as no surprise to those who’ve been keeping up with the news, working on the frontlines with residents, or even just listening to friends, colleagues and family, that the current period of crisis and lockdown is having a significant impact on the mental health of the UK population.

As social housing organisations look to plan their future service provision, the questions many will want answered are what is the likely long-term impact and who will be most affected?

If we look towards evidence from previous outbreaks of virus epidemics, such as SARs, it seems that the impact won’t be shared evenly. While the psychological distress, increased isolation and levels of anxiety that have come with the lockdown will be short lived for many, certain other groups they will suffer mental health problems disproportionately badly. For those groups, longer term support and care will be needed.

This is particularly relevant to social housing organisations as those who are most affected are more likely to live in social housing.

Those most likely to suffer poor mental health are those who became sick with the virus, particularly those who were hospitalised. They are likely to experience significant mental health problems, including PTSD and depression. Likewise, healthcare care workers will also be likely to suffer from poor mental health. Evidence from the SARs outbreak in China indicates that some healthcare workers may experience anxiety, depression, PTSD and burn out for months, and in some cases even years, after the virus had ended.

Children and young people are another group who have been highly effected, particularly children who are losing out on social contact with their peers because of school closures. Likewise, evidence from places were parents have been in isolation with children show that they, too, experience significantly worse mental health than those who are not isolated with children.

Older people, too, are experiencing poor mental health. During the SARs epidemic there was a 30% increase in suicides amongst the over 65s; one piece of research suggested that being in quarantine for ten days seemed to be the tipping point. That’s concerning since the isolation we’re looking at over the course of this lockdown is far longer than ten days.

People with existing mental health conditions and learning disabilities are also a group who will be badly impacted. There is already evidence that referrals to mental health services are currently much lower than expected, which indicates that there are people out there who are not getting the support they require. As a consequence of lockdown, many of these people have lost access to support networks, coping mechanisms and treatments such as counselling or therapy which they would have been receiving. Others may be finding it hard to understand the situation.

For social housing organisations, low-income residents will be amongst those who are suffering disproportionately badly. Research done on the impacts of epidemics on the mental health of populations in the past confirm the trend that the poorer the household, the more likely and more longstanding the mental health issues seem to be. We’re already seeing evidence of this in the UK, with recent reports showing that the poorest areas in the country are suffering the most.

According to the Centre for Mental Health, if the economic impact of Covid-19 is similar to financial crisis we’re likely to see 500,000 additional people suffer poor mental health. We can expect those people to disproportionately be social housing residents and BME people, and recent reports in the news have strengthened emerging evidence around those projections.

As social housing organisations, it’s going to be very important that we invest in mental health support, not only in terms of providing services for residents but seeing mental health support as an organisational wide issue. If we do that, the mental health recovery time will be quicker.

Many social housing organisations already acknowledge the additional psychological stress that something like repaying rent arrears and owing money puts on residents. Educating our staff teams on these wider issues and looking, for instance, at mental health and money and debt advice in tandem, will be a vitally important long-term consideration.

Critically, we will also need to recognise the impact that this current situation is having on our own staff, and their mental health and wellbeing. Staff working on the frontline, in particular, will be meeting with increasing numbers of people with mental health issues, so there will be a need to equip them with the skills and support they need.

Working in partnership and linking with national and local organisations who have expertise in other areas of mental health provision, will also be crucial. Interventions and services that have already brokered that space between health and housing, such as Link’s Better Than Well project or Orbit’s Breathing Space programme, have had clear and lasting positive impacts on the lives of residents.

A final thought: it’s mental health awareness week this week and the theme is kindness – it’s important to be kind to our families, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours and, most critically, ourselves.

Some further information:

Briefing on mental health and social housing

Mental health and social housing webinar

Breathing Space (Orbit service) 

Mental health at work (CIH and Mind)

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