The role of housing goes far beyond physical shelter and safety. It introduces people to a community to which they can belong, a space which is their own, a communal setting where they can make friends, form relationships and a place where they can go for support, social interaction and reduce feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Housing – stable, safe housing – also provides a springboard for people to begin to re-integrate with society. An address allows them to register with services, including claiming benefits, registering at a local job centre, registering with a GP, and applying for jobs.
Housing and health, both physical and mental, are inextricably linked. A 2015 blog from the Mental Health Foundation put the relationship between housing and health in some of the clearest terms:
“Homelessness and mental health often go hand in hand, and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having a mental health problem can create the circumstances which can cause a person to become homeless in the first place. Yet poor housing or homelessness can also increase the chances of developing a mental health problem, or exacerbate an existing condition.”
Single homeless people are significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than the general population. And as a result of being homeless they are also far more likely to rely on A&E services, only visiting when they reach crisis point, rather than being treated in a local setting by a GP. They are also more likely to be re-admitted. This high usage is also costly, and increasingly calls are being made for services to be delivered in a more interconnected way, ensuring that housing is high on the list of priorities for those teams helping people to transition from hospital back into the community.
Not just those who are homeless being failed
However, transitioning from hospital into suitable housing after a mental health hospital admission is not just a challenge for homeless people. It is also the case that people are being discharged from hospital to go back into settings that are unsuitable. Housing which is unsafe, in poor condition, in unsafe locations or in locations away from family and social networks can also have a significant impact on the ability of people to recover and prevent readmission.
Councils are facing an almost constant struggle to house people in appropriate accommodation. However, finding a solution to safe, affordable and suitable housing is vital. Reinvesting in social housing is a core strategy councils are considering going forward to try and relieve some of the pressure and demand. Gender and age specific approaches, which consider the specific needs of women, potentially with children, or old and young people and their specific needs would also go a long way to creating long term secure housing solutions which would then also impact on the use of frontline NHS services (by reducing the need for them because more could be treated in the community). Suitable housing also has the potential to improve employment prospects or increase the uptake of education or training among younger people with a mental illness. It would also provide stability and security, long term, to allow people to make significant lifestyle changes and reduce their risk of homelessness in the future.
A new relationship for housing and health
A number of recommendations have been made for services. Many have called for the introduction of multi-disciplinary teams within the NHS, recruited from different backgrounds, not only to create partnerships with non-NHS teams, but also to act as a transitional care team, to ensure that care is transferred and dealt with in a community setting in an appropriate way, and to ensure housing is both adequate and reflects the needs of those who are most vulnerable.
In June 2017 the King’s Fund held an online seminar to discuss how greater integration between housing and mental health services could help accelerate discharge from hospital and reduce the rates of readmission for people suffering from mental illness. The panel included Claire Murdoch, National Mental Health Director at NHS England and Rachael Byrne, Executive Director, New Models of Care at Home Group.
Increasingly the important link between housing and health is being recognised and developments are being made in acknowledging that both effective treatment and a stable environment are vital to helping people with mental illness recover and re-integrate back into their community, improving their life chances and reducing the potential for relapse.
Housing can be an area of life which can have a significant impact on mental health. It can cause stress, and the financial burden, possibility of being made homeless, or being placed in temporary accommodation can have a significant and lasting negative effect on people’s mental health. However, safe and stable housing can also have a significant positive impact on mental health, providing stability, privacy, dignity and a sense of belonging.
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