The UK is facing a housing crisis. It is having a huge impact on the physical and mental health of many people in the country. MQ’s copywriter Juliette Burton shares her personal story.
This month (May 2023) not only importantly hosted Mental Health Awareness Week, which we at MQ were all very excited to engage with, but it is also the month of my flat-warming party.
This might seem like a self-obsessed blasé introduction but the link between mental health and the current UK housing crisis means my personal story is worryingly indicative of a much bigger problem our nation faces right now.
Having lived outside of London all my life, I moved to the capital in 2019, becoming a lodger with a friend. It was there I stayed during the pandemic when my flatmate and I lost our income since we both worked in the arts industry. Like many others, repeated lockdowns and uncertainty took its toll and just over a year ago (March 2022) I moved out.
In total honesty I was adrift, feeling lost, alone, ready for a change but also, having taken those repeated lockdowns to look deeper at myself and my past, my clinical depression was stronger than I’d been aware. At the time I wanted to punish myself. So I moved into a small, cold, studio flat to be alone.
A year later and I am overjoyed to say I no longer live in that place; neither the flat nor the sense of hopelessness. But this new era has come at high cost, to my physical health, financial health and mental health.
Like many in London the studio I lived in for the past 12 months was costly to rent and the conditions not good for anyone’s health. In summer 2022 I was signed off work for suicidal thoughts and deep depression. n November 2022 I was diagnosed as having shingles, unusual for a fairly fit person in their 30s, and in January 2023 after repeated fevers I was diagnosed with pneumonia.
Environ-Mental: Environment Affects Mental Health
This is no surprise considering research shows body temperature or thermal comfort, the sounds surrounding us or noise pollution and the privacy in our surroundings or personal space helps has a strong effect on our mental health. That combined with the effect air pollution can have on mental wellbeing as shown by research means where we live can have a real impact on mental health and may cause mental illness.
Temperature and stress can become a two way street as stress may also impact body temperature and some believe stress might even cause fevers including hyperthermia and hypothermia.
Conversely, living somewhere with lots of light, privacy, warmth and peaceful or calming noises as well as plants and nature around you is likely to have a positive effect on mental health. So living in a cold, damp studio near an aggregate plant with aggressive neighbours and very little sunlight had the effect I’d subconsciously invited… to damage my mental well-being.
Stolen bikes, aggressive neighbours and frequent illness… while the influence of my clinical depression had led me into familiar shadows, the effects of my living conditions were clearly taking me to a place even darker than I had subconsciously anticipated.
As soon as I started telling people I’d developed pneumonia, the number of people who have shared that either they or someone they know who is in the 30s or 40s has had the same condition recently has astonished me. If I start wearing corset and petticoats and perhaps buy a penny farthing to get to work then maybe I’ll live out the full Dickensian novel dream. Or should that be nightmare?
Stress can have a huge effect on our mental health and our physical health. And people living with severe mental illness often have poorer physical health than the general population. They are much more likely to die below the age of 75, mostly from physical illnesses that could have been prevented. They are also more likely to have multiple physical health conditions alongside their mental illness. Physical health and mental health seem to be intrinsically linked.
After realising I could not afford to remain in London, I began searching in counties outside the capital. The market was intense. It became a daily ritual before work to wake up, search the property adverts, email before the offices opened, call once they’d opened. Seeing a flat advertised at 9am, I’d be on the phone before 9.30am to be told they’d already had to close viewings because they’d been inundated. At one point I was told to an estate agent I’d met time and time again and spoken to every day for weeks that one property had been put on the market the evening before at he’d walked in to 30-40 emails requesting to view the property the next morning.
I think I saw 20-30 properties, made offers on 5 each time to be told I wasn’t successful.
The repeated rejection was hard to endure, even with all the logic present that it wasn’t personal. And, while sofa surfing and staying with friends to whom I’m indescribably grateful, the toll continued My stress levels were high.
The effect of this relentless property search on my mental health and physical health was clear. My pneumonia took far longer to recover from with a longer time off work and my depression continued. I found it hard to think clearly, communicate effectively or connect with others.
In all my years of renting, I’d never experienced this sort of trend before. Friends were reassuring me they’d heard of others in similar situations. The reassurance led to further societal concern.
Not Alone: Societal Crisis
I had no idea that others were experiencing equally distressing and similar events.
The statistics from early on in 2023 are clear – we are experiencing a housing crisis. In London alone, construction on new-builds and sales have faltered according to data from Molior. And prices of rental accommodation have continued to rise. In Lambeth, the council sent a letter to residents in March telling them that their overall housing costs were going to increase by up to £300 per month. Just four week’s notice was given with no consultation. The letter advised residents that if they couldn’t afford the rent they were welcome to hand in their notice. I know I would’ve.
Given the cost of living crisis, rising costs of fuel, energy, food costs and more, more and more people are likely to struggle to afford their bills. This may have impacted reasons why the housing market is so cutthroat right now and why it took me months to find a property I could not only afford to rent but also on which my offer made was accepted. For anyone currently not searching for a new abode, here’s some insight into the reality of the situation.
Statistics show there’s not enough social homes which is being recognised by local governments. Over 1.2 million households are on waiting lists for social homes in England alone. Almost 100,000 households are living in temporary accommodation including 120,710 children. Councils spent £1.6 billion on temporary accommodation in 2021-22 alone.
Flat Warming: Heart Warming
Thankfully, this part of my journey has a happy ending. I was lucky enough to find a new property to rent. I moved in mid-April this year. Every morning I wake up to see a warm light coming through the windows, with more space to work more effectively within, a nearby GP at which I’m able to be registered, friendly neighbours, I even now have outdoor space with a small balcony. The physical feeling of relief I feel is pertinent.
The visceral sensations of basic needs being met feels like my body has a chance of finally being on steadfast ground. And there are signs not only my self-esteem is beginning to recover but that my mental health might also be beginning to stabilise too.
Thanks to research I better understand why these things are having already a positive effect on my mental health. In all honesty, I had hoped it would be a magic cure and I’d suddenly not have any issues with depression or anxiety or eating disorders. But of course, this is not the case. My mental illnesses remain with me, but now the surroundings are healthier it gives me a firmer foundational baseline from which I can build healthier habits. And more people deserve the same level of basic safety and security from which they too can build better mental health.
Research has helped me understand what I’ve been through in the recent past and why housing is a vital piece in the jigsaw puzzle of good mental health. With further research, hopefully future legislation and governmental housing policy will draw from clear research linking mental health and having a safe, healthy home.
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