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Look Who’s Talking: Mental Health Disability and Housing Associations

By guest writer Carl Davis

Former sector leaders are now rightly demanding that more must be done to stamp out racism in social housing (Social Landlords accused of inaction on racial harrassment, Inside Housing 07/02/21 ). But while there ‘s at least finally some renewed focus on acknowledging and addressing racism in the sector, its current leaders and many social landlords are still ignoring core aspects of the Equality Act 2010 relating to disability.

Residents with mental health disabilities and with autistic behavioural traits are bearing the brunt of this, usually by being perceived as difficult, awkward or anti-social ‘problem tenants’ by housing providers. This overlooks the fact that these tenants are vulnerable, have specific problems and difficulties, and that the solution is to offer help, support, and reasonable adjustments.

This article has resonated with many of our members, and we would like to discuss how SHAC can support those impacted by the issues raised. By acting collectively, we can start to challenge some of the negative prejudices towards those with disabilities and our aim at the meeting will be to develop campaign ideas.

The SHAC Disability Visibility Group will hold its first meeting at 6.30pm, Weds 24th March. Register online via shac.action@gmail.com.

Not being a particularly sociable person, or finding interpersonal relationships difficult, is not the same as being anti-social. Anti-social behaviour (ASB) means behaving in a way that causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to another (paraphrasing the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 and Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 ). These two terms are however often used interchangeably, giving the impression that those with mental health disabilities or neurodiversity are automatically hostile to the rest of society, and behave inappropriately towards others.

Historically , the larger social Landlords have done very little to develop a meaningful understanding of mental health disability and neurodiversity. Their policies, practice and, increasingly, on- and offline public relations campaigns, essentially trivialise and over simplify the subject. Their material cherry-picks conditions, symptoms and behavioural traits to deliberately avoid areas of difference and difficulty so as not to present too much of a challenge to what is considered ‘normal’ .

Similarly, social landlords and the sector’s professional bodies overwhelmingly focus on mental health and well-being in the workplace. Tenants with mental health disabilities in particular are talked about in policy terms by social housing execs and managers who have very little real understanding or experience of living with mental health disability or autism. Many of these same executives classify any attempt by residents with mental health disabilities to even try to be a part of that conversation as anti-social behaviour.

To illustrate this systemic prejudice and the abysmal knowledge gap around mental health disability and neurodiversity a recent national conference that focused on mental health and well-being in social housing rotated around hangovers and the sector’s hard drinking culture.

Look Who’s Talking

The social housing sector’s mental health and well-being conversation with itself practically excludes any possibility of promoting equality – look who’s talking! Those involved in the mental health conversation certainly don’t reflect or encourage diversity, and clearly aren’t practising inclusion. This helps reinforce the culture of harassment and bullying that plagues relations between housing associations and their disabled residents.

The media’s and sector’s fleeting attention span is now turning to pandemic related mental health issues.

Readers may have noted the flurry of Inside Housing think-pieces on how the sector should deal with this ‘national mental health crisis’. Residents and housing workers with mental health disabilities urgently need to break into the sector’s mental health and well-being conversation with itself, whether or not their input is welcomed.

We must end the automatic conflation of anti-social behaviour and mental health disabilities. The conversation must also acknowledge and address the fact that the very concept of ASB in social housing now extends to practically almost anything social landlords merely dislike or find annoying. Some sector landlords have long been committed to acting in the most bullying and coercive ways, and deliberately use the most convoluted and evasive bureaucratic jargon in their procedures. This helps them determine that residents simply asking questions or seeking clarification constitutes anti-social activity which provides them with an excuse to act against the resident concerned.

Making Demands on Housing Associations

SHAC is committed to supporting those with disabilities so that they can be heard within the sector, and will continue working with members to drive a better understanding of the issues.

The mental health and neurodiversity knowledge gap in the sector will take time to address, but we want to include residents and workers with lived experience of mental health or neurodiversity in the conversation. Proposals must be discussed and developed, but like racism, the culture of bullying and disability discrimination itself has to be tackled right now.

The initial demands that we propose are threefold. Firstly, we should insist that housing associations are subject to an enforceable protocol to ensure that those with mental health disabilities or on the spectrum are treated fairly and equally. Secondly, that landlords are externally monitored on how well they adhere to their own policies on equality diversity and inclusion, and the Equality Act, which too many still consider optional. Thirdly, that measures are introduced to implement the Care Quality Commission’s person-centred approach on mental health service provision, including through contracts with ‘community partners’. We hope that all with an interest in mental health disabilities will get involved.

Carl Davis has a paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis. He has lived in current housing association property for almost 20 years without problems. However, he recently made a request to his landlord for a reasonable adjustment request and believes this has led to persistent harassment and victimisation; something many others with similar conditions will find familiar.

23 February 2021

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