The toxic link between mental health problems and rent arrears

7 June 2018

Nikki Bond – Research Assistant
Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

A home provides security and stability from which people can build fulfilling lives, and make positive contributions to their local communities. However, keeping up with rental payments can sometimes be a challenge. For people experiencing mental health problems, this challenge can be magnified – both because they are more likely to be in financial difficulty, and because the impact of that difficulty may be more significant. Last month we published a new analysis of national data and found that one-third of people struggling with housing payments are also experiencing mental health problems.

Mental health problems a barrier to resolving arrears

For our latest housing research, we spoke to hundreds of people with experience of both mental health problems and rent arrears, who were living in social housing. A common cause of housing problems was a sudden change in income, including loss of job, changes in family circumstances or changes to benefits. Any of us can face these challenges – but what stood out from our research was the additional barriers people with mental health problems face in overcoming them.

Many people described being overwhelmed by their mental health problems, experiencing changes with memory, attention, clarity of thought or impulsivity. Whilst unwell, people often lacked the problem solving skills to resolve their rent arrears alone, too unwell to return to or seek work, and lacking the motivation or capability to navigate the benefits system. As a result, rent goes unpaid and a person’s home is at risk. Frozen by fear and anxiety, people described feeling powerless to change their situation and disengaging from the very services that can help them. Calls go unanswered, and letters are left unopened, or discarded when warnings of homes being ‘at risk’ spark panic. All too often, people found themselves careering towards possession proceedings.

“It all spirals and sets up a feedback loop with my bipolar. The financial stress makes the bipolar worse, which makes the financial stress even less likely to be resolved… The terror of being evicted, of knowing you’re reaching that point and it really isn’t your fault, is something else. It’s beyond your control as your world has been turned upside down.”
– Expert by experience

Changing approaches – Reducing arrears

Welfare reform has led to a raft of changes to housing related benefit entitlements. Local Authorities have made huge efforts to prepare for these reforms, and invest in support services for people experiencing difficulties paying their rent. We heard of some excellent examples of great practice. Sadly, we also heard many stories of people experiencing mental health problems struggling to access the support offered from social landlords – sometimes because the message that support was available never got through, or because the support offered wasn’t in a suitable format.

Our Best Practice Checklist identifies some straightforward solutions that social landlords can adopt to try to alter this damaging link between mental health problems and rent arrears, these include:

  • Mental health awareness training for housing staff
  • Gathering tenants’ preferred communication channel and using this where possible
  • Adapting written correspondence so that messages of support are the first thing people see in a letter, not the last
  • Developing systems to flag up tenants who may need an enhanced level of support, particularly around increased monitoring of rent accounts

Reducing the link between mental health problems and rent arrears is not just the responsibility of Local Authorities and social landlords, and we have made a number of policy recommendations to government, specifically around benefit technicalities, which can be read in our full report here.

Local councils, however, are well placed to reduce rent arrears for people experiencing mental health problems, in turn reducing costly evictions and homelessness. Mental health champions can help by advocating for the 34% of people with mental health problems who are struggling with housing payments, by encouraging their local housing departments and social housing providers to adopt our Best Practice Checklist.

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Champions say

"The greatest help you can give is to banish fear from your hearts." Mansfield District Council

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