On Sunday, as I returned home from seeing my dad in Bournemouth, a realisation set in. I was profoundly happy. That might not come as a surprise – after all, I’d spent the afternoon loafing around a seaside town in the sweltering heat. Yet this wasn’t a momentary high, the result of a brief stimulus up-regulating my mood – though it was that as well – but something more enduring. I’d felt like this for a while.
Such a sensation is relatively recent. Seven years ago I sunk into a deep depression and suffered from anxiety – my mother’s death, the nadir of the most difficult period of my life. I was often hopeless and, for a period of six months, suicidal. Insomnia had arrived with my depression, ghosting in and out before becoming a permanent, unwelcome fixture. As a result, I took phenergan, an antihistamine, to help me sleep. Whenever a pharmacist would ask why I wanted it, I would lie and say it was for travel sickness.
A first turning point came when I finally spoke to a new GP, at the insistence of my girlfriend, who immediately prescribed 50 milligrams of sertraline a day. This proved a powerful intervention, with the medication providing sufficient mental bandwidth for me to finally help myself. A year later we moved to Southsea, in Portsmouth. While we loved London it was increasingly obvious that having a family in the capital was impossible: property was unaffordable, quality of life was increasingly poor, and our parents were on the south coast. I had moved 15 times in as many years, and we had both had enough.
We relocated with the intention of buying somewhere but initially rented to find a neighbourhood that we liked. If Southsea didn’t work out we would try some place else. A year later a second turning point occurred – one which I believe was far more powerful than even antidepressants. We bought a home. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed housing security.
Housing security is a mental health issue.
Talk of mental health is increasingly pervasive and its adjunct of ‘self-care’ is a booming industry. But it wasn’t a meditation app that helped me find happiness, or eliminating gluten from my diet, but a profound alteration in my relationship to that most fundamental of goods: shelter. Within weeks of moving, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders; after paying approximately £90,000 in rent I now enjoyed a fundamentally different relationship to the world. I’m certain I would have felt the same way if it was a council property on a secure tenancy.
Not long after, we did something unimaginable for most renters and bought a dog. As with sertraline, and leaving parasitic landlords behind, this had a dramatic impact on my mood. Finally, in my mid-30s, I inhabit an environment where a stranger can’t ask me to leave at the drop of a hat and where I’m in control of my surroundings. I feel more invested in my community than ever before, because I know I won’t be priced out in a year or two. It’s important to remind yourself that none of this is asking for much, yet its absence is the default for my generation and those younger than me.
On both sides of our terraced house are HMOs – houses of multiple occupancy – each with five to six tenants. Where I previously felt sorry for myself as a renter, I now feel anger at landlords who buy these properties, which should be family homes, flats or coops, and turn them into shoeboxes with a focus on nothing but value extraction. Accompanying that is a sense of shame: many of my friends simply can’t get on the housing ladder, especially in London, while the option of social housing is increasingly marginal. I work no harder than them, and am certainly no more virtuous, and yet they have to give half their wages to someone every month who (generally) does nothing while seeing their asset gain in value. It’s deeply unfair, and while I’ve had a stroke of luck – and a partner who earns more than me – it’s only sharpened my criticism of our dysfunctional system.
We can’t solve the mental health crisis without solving the housing crisis.
That there is a crisis of mental health in the UK is undeniable. This has intensified as a result of the pandemic, with one in five people suffering from depression last year. Yet before Covid-19, the situation was still bleak with mental health accounting for 23% of the burden of disease according to The King’s Fund. Approximately one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England.
While such a grim reality has been slowly acknowledged by politicians and the press over the last decade, the default response remains shallow and generally consists of calls for cultural change – whether it’s Prince William’s Heads Together campaign, or Boris Johnson appointing Love Island’s Alex George as a youth mental health ambassador. Conspicuously absent is any mention of the relationship between material conditions – be it commuting, wages or housing – and how we feel. This should come as no surprise, of course. After all, perennial talk of challenging stigma is cheaper than properly funding the NHS, building millions of council-owned properties or improving wages. And yet dealing with mental health as a form of purely privatised stress leaves us incapable of dealing with it as a social phenomenon. While a report presented to the UN by special rapporteur Dainius Pūras makes recommendations broadly akin to social democracy – that is something we rarely hear from politicians.
As Karl Marx put it, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” I’m much happier now, not because I decided to be, or because I magically adopted a can-do attitude, but because of changes in my social existence, first thanks to socialised healthcare and later with housing. But I’m also angry, because the primary reason I came apart in the first place – Britain’s rental market – is only getting worse. For younger generations, who are ever more likely to rent, and for longer, its crushing exploitation must end.
We can’t solve the mental health crisis until we solve the housing crisis. For me that’s clearer than ever.