Social landlords are spending thousands of pounds training staff to identify tenants at risk of committing suicide as benefit and public sector cuts take their toll on deprived communities, The Independent can disclose.
Call-centre staff, housing officers and even maintenance workers are sent on courses that cost up to £300 per person, teaching participants how to judge whether someone is suicidal or suffering from mental-health problems.
Housing associations are experiencing an increase in mental distress among social tenants facing eviction or struggling to keep up with rent and other bills due to benefit cuts and the overhaul of the welfare system.
The development comes amid evidence of growing desperation in Britain’s poorest regions as austerity bites. Last week Stephanie Bottrill, 53, took her own life, leaving a note for her children blaming her misery over the “bedroom tax”. She had been expected to find another £20 a week towards her rent to remain in her home and faced moving to a new property at short notice.
Christine Clark, a trainer in mental health issues, is experiencing a rush in demand for her services from social landlords. She is working with major housing providers in the North of England which are together responsible for managing more than 55,000 tenancies.
Ms Clark said housing associations – including her clients in Liverpool, Lancashire and Stockport – felt the need to prepare staff for the personal impact of dealing with tenants’ troubled lives.
“It’s awful to be hearing difficult things and not really know how to respond. You need to know as the employee that you did what you could [for a tenant],” she said. “Most of my work has been for housing providers that have seen this coming. They are trying to make sure their staff are better prepared – both for tenants who are in crisis, with a lot more talk about suicide, and for each other.”
Employees are also trained to cope with the gaps left by other services withdrawing from communities due to lack of funding. “I’m training people who traditionally had good relationships with other [mental health] services, when crisis teams were available. Now housing officers, who have their normal job role, are dealing with these things and making decisions. It’s quite scary.”
John Bailey, health and safety manager at Helena Homes, which manages 13,000 social rented properties in Merseyside, has made sure frontline staff such as maintenance and repairs teams have gone through the training alongside those working in traditional care and support jobs.
“A lot of our tenants live in really difficult situations. What we’re seeing now is even more desperate people,” he said.
One member of staff working for Helena Homes reported entering the home of an older tenant living in sheltered housing to discover he had hanged himself on the back of the bathroom door.
“We do have some of the very most deprived people in the whole country. These people have more or less just given up. Some of them are just starving to death. It’s very distressing when someone stops paying their rent, and you go and find them in these circumstances. It’s going to back to something like Victorian times.”
As well as putting greater strain on housing staff, cuts to community services that local people rely upon are also increasing the risk of isolation for residents. “This increases the misery of our tenants. Many of them just can’t cope with change.”
Paul Turner has worked as a plasterer for Helena Housing for five years. He was one of the first to be trained in mental health first aid and has encouraged colleagues to follow his lead. “If you see someone who has got a problem you can basically talk to them and you can see if they’re having suicidal thoughts without actually bringing the word up,” he said.
As well as spotting those in mental turmoil, Mr Turner said he now feels equipped to give advice to those who may be suffering, such as avoiding alcohol because it is a depressant.
“I think everybody, at one part of their life, has suicidal thoughts – I know I have. It could be a workmate, it could be a member of your family, a resident. It could be anyone.”
Charities have lobbied the Government, warning that welfare reform could have a severe impact on already impoverished communities hardest hit by the changes.
The mental health charity Mind warned that many people with underlying mental health problems would be specifically affected by the overhaul of the benefits system, including the replacement of the disability living allowance and cuts to housing benefit.
“We know that people’s homes are important to them,” said senior policy and campaigns officer Tom Pollard. “There’s a lot going on and people are very worried about what the impact is going to be. They feel very unsettled and that the future is uncertain. That will have a significant impact on people’s mental health.”
The Chartered Institute of Housing, which represents staff working for social landlords, is preparing organisations for the staggered introduction of welfare reforms and has encouraged them to offer training for all staff to cope with the shift in their responsibilities and workload.
But Ms Clark says the problem of mental illness in social-housing communities – and among staff dealing with distressed tenants – will only get worse as benefit cuts bite.