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Homes Are Linked to Our Wellbeing

19 January 2018

Prof Siobhan Oneil

Siobhan O’Neill is a Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University and in this feature she emphasises the correlation between homelessness and mental ill health.

Our homes, and home ownership, are inextricably linked with our wellbeing, our sense of self and our journey through life. Moving out of the family home, leaving home to work or study, moving in with a partner, they all represent key milestones.

For many, the move away from home and eventually establishing our own home represents progress, success, and a meaningful life. Indeed in our culture the concept of home ownership is also vital. Many barely question the legitimacy of the cultural drive to get on the housing ladder, viewing the mortgage (literally translated as ‘death grip’) as indicative of full participation in society. It is a lure that few resist, and many are railroaded into unmanageable debt that will, at best, plunge them into lifelong debt and tie them to unsuitable jobs and careers.

Sadly, Northern Ireland is peppered with half paid for houses with “owners” who have sacrificed many of the meaningful and important aspects of life, relationships, time with children, in order to pay for the buildings, which for them represent success, wealth and power. Moving back into the parental home is for some regarded as the ultimate indication of failure, and yet this is increasingly common.

Mental Health

In my analysis of 1,600 suicides in Northern Ireland there was an important blip in age and residence graph for men in their 30s and 40s.These were men, who had taken their own lives, after having moved back into the parental home following a relationship or marriage breakdown. Shame, failure and guilt are key features of the life crises that precipitate suicide. Homelessness can bring all three.

Housing transitions are sources of stress themselves; dealing with landlords, banks or solicitors, packing, and moving, and then getting to know a new area. All take their toll. They are also associated with the life events that themselves lead to mental illness. When the transition is the result of a death, a divorce, or a repossession, it can result in a devastating combination of stress, shame and the disruption of key relationships. These life crises can challenge an individual’s sense of self and worth to the degree that it triggers a spiral of depression. The struggles that occur in the days, weeks and months leading up to the transition are also associated with anxiety. Financial stress, concern about repayments, and negotiations over property are for many a source of considerable anxiety, often over the long-term.

Whilst anxiety from time to time is a normal part of the human condition, the repeated activation of the fight or flight response, the cardiovascular, immunological, gastrointestinal system preparation for battle, is not conducive to good physical functioning. Over time chronic stress increases the risk of the many physical health conditions that are associated with lower life expectancy and poverty. Chronic stress, and in many cases severe trauma, are also at the root of the lifestyle “choices” that themselves create disease, and of course reliance on alcohol or drugs often excludes people from many housing options which are designed to protect .

We are getting good, as a society, at talking about mental health, particularly condemning a perceived lack of mental health services. What is less often acknowledged is the role of the policy decisions, the practices of big business, and the social forces around us; which are in part responsible for many of these problems. No amount of mindfulness meditation, resilience training and talking about our mental health will have an ounce on the impact of bold and just welfare policies.

Sadly we seem to be moving further away from really protecting those who are vulnerable, and those who are caught, as a result of combinations of unfortunate life events and trauma, in the trap of unmanageable debt and homelessness. Our high suicide rates and the results from the analyses of the factors associated with the deaths are evidence of this, and my recent discussions with those working on the ground in suicide prevention services, would suggest that the problem is getting worse.

Click here to download View Digital’s full Homelessness Crisis issue.