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Interview: Paul Spencer of Mind on mental health and social housing

Mental health charity Mind recently launched a campaign to raise awareness of how problems related to social housing often exacerbates mental health issues for tenants.

Paul Spencer, policy and campaigns Manager at Mind, spoke to NewStart about reducing stigma, community cohesion and whether we are becoming a kinder society.

One of Mind’s recommendations is that local authorities collect data on the mental health needs of tenants. How would this work in practice and is there a danger it could further stigmatise people?

I don’t believe it will further stigmatise people because once the data is there and we can monitor how those of us with mental health problems are treated, any discrimination will be more easily identified. It will bring it out into the open.

In terms of how it will work in practice, local authorities are already required to record data for national government, all we want is for this data to be broken down a bit more and to include the numbers of people with a mental health problem. We can only really make sure that people are getting the housing they need if we know the needs of the people getting the housing in the first place.

The recent social housing green paper mentioned street parties as an idea to improve community cohesion. Is this a good and realistic idea?

Well it certainly sounds like fun, however, I’m not sure it’s the biggest priority.

Community cohesion is important, as feeling connected with your neighbours and safe where you are is important for mental health. But if there are problems within a community, it’s probably best to identify what those specific issues are and offer tailored support.

We know for example, that many areas experience antisocial behaviour, which can often be the result of social deprivation. The physical state of housing and communal areas can also lead to social isolation and it’s hard to see how parties could address either of these complex issues.

We are all individuals and we all play different roles within our communities and require varying levels of support. So rather than throwing a blanket suggestion at the issue, it might be best to consider what that unique community needs most.

How can housing officials who discriminate against tenants with mental health be better held to account?

Going back to my earlier point, I believe that improved data will allow us to identify patterns in behaviour and to hold those who discriminate to account. We don’t want to start a blame game as we know officials are under a lot of pressure themselves. Instead, we will be looking at ways we can train, educate and support housing professionals to meet the needs of others – as well as looking after themselves.

What positive interventions have housing associations made regarding mental health?

Housing associations have a big role to play here. We know that many support tenants who may be having difficulties with money or other areas of their lives because of their mental health problems. The help they provide can really be invaluable. But too often I think this support is focused on people in supported housing and perhaps the biggest challenge is how we can support all people who are in need of housing.

There are plenty of housing associations who don’t offer this support to anywhere near the level that’s needed.

Then there’s the bigger picture – we need housing providers to join the call for changes at the national level and also to get more to grips with the idea that the physical environment that we live in has a huge impact on the mental health of us all.

What mental health training do housing associations get at the moment, and how would you like to see it improved?

 I think where we see supported housing being delivered by registered social landlords, there are great opportunities around sharing best practice and expertise. As organisations work in more integrated ways, the impact of this knowledge will be far-reaching.

One example of this is the work that HomeGroup is doing – an organisation that manages dedicated mental health supported accommodation as well as a significant general needs housing stock. The organisation is reviewing its mental health first aid training offer, to ensure that those working in customer services for general needs, and not only supported housing, are appropriately trained to support customers effectively.

 What can be done to reduce the damage that Universal Credit is causing?

As Universal Credit (UC) replaces current disability benefits we are seeing the onus being placed on individuals to re-apply, and giving them a short window of time in which to do this. Government needs to change this to make sure no-one runs the risk of losing out financially in the move to UC.

Longer term we need to reduce the use of automatic sanctions and consider people’s individual challenges. It’s an already onerous system, and for those of us who need financial support due to severe or enduring mental health problems, this can increase levels of stress and anxiety.

Could allowing more social tenants the right to keep pets improve mental health?

There are pros and cons, as pets need commitment, care and the financial means to support them. But if this is something that can be adequately provided, having a pet for company can positively support somebody’s wellbeing.

The social housing green paper report mentions stigma from neighbours. Are we becoming a less kind society?

Alongside Rethink Mental Illness, Mind is a founding partner of Time to Change, the national campaign to challenge the way we think and act about mental health. Time to Change research has shown that, while stigma is still present in places, it has significantly reduced.

The research shows that the percentage of people who agreed that ‘It is frightening to think of people with mental problems living in residential neighbourhoods’, declined from 16 per cent to 8 per cent between 2008–16 (Time to Change, 2017, Attitudes to Mental Illness 2016. London: Time to Change).

So we are certainly not becoming a less kind society. Things are improving, but our ambition is to banish these kinds of attitudes to history once and for all.

Read more about Mind’s campaign here.

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