The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) has worked for over 30 years to improve the housing conditions of low-income households around the country. Through our direct services programs, advocacy, and policy development, we have worked to protect children and families from harmful health hazards that may be present in their homes, many of which can contribute to toxic stress and negatively impact mental health.
There are millions of people in the United States that are living with at least one mental illness, or mental health problem that could include depression, anxiety, a personality or eating disorder, or a drug addiction. These conditions can be severe and crippling, or relatively mild with intermittent flare ups. Regardless of which factors contribute to these conditions, if provided with the right resources and support, people can manage their mental health. A safe and healthy home environment is one of those critical resources that can have a tremendous impact on those living with mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, there is a shortage of quality and affordable housing in many parts of the country and for mentally ill individuals, the options can be scarcer. In many cases around the country affordable housing may be available, but its quality may be poor, or its location in unsafe neighborhoods. These housing options may not be the best fit for individuals with mental health disorders and could possibly worsen the condition. A 2017 study by Pevalin et al. suggests a correlation between the housing quality and mental health problems. For example, a deteriorated home with structural deficiencies may impact an individual’s ability to feel safe in their home and could contribute to stress and anxiety, both of which are associated with numerous mental illnesses.
Although there are many individuals that can live healthy and stable lives with their conditions, there are also many individuals whose mental illness could impact their ability to find and stay in a home. This premise provides an explanation for the apparent relationship between the homeless population and individuals with mental health problems.
While our focus at GHHI and much of the housing community is to improve housing conditions for low-income individuals and families, it is also important to note that individuals with mental health problems are among those that are the most vulnerable to the effects of poor quality housing. Therefore, when we think about maximizing the benefits of improvements to housing, it is important that healthy housing and energy efficient interventions are targeted at the homes of the mentally ill. Not only could these improvements provide a better environment for recovery, but it could also be a mechanism for addressing homelessness.
Recognizing this tremendous opportunity, housing authorities in New York City have recently made a commitment to providing affordable housing and supportive services to their homeless population and individuals with disabilities and mental health problems. Households that qualify for this program are placed in a previously identified residential apartment that meets local, state and federal laws, regulations, and standards for safety and quality, and rental assistance that allows residents to pay 30 percent of their income on rent. In addition, each program participant is offered several supportive services including case management, medication management and counseling, referrals to medical services, mental health care and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, and legal support. The combination of services offered by the New York City Supportive Housing program enables individuals struggling with mental health to focus on their recovery instead of worrying about the various stressors that result from poor quality and unaffordable housing.
By promoting models like the one in New York City, we can provide useful resources as well as improved care and support for individuals living with mental health problems!