NEA: Warm Homes, Warm Minds

Warm Homes, Warm Minds

NEA and MHNE have been working in partnership on the Warm Minds project, increasing the awareness of practitioners and service users of the effects that a cold home can have on mental health.

For those already dealing with depression and poor mental health the winter months can be a miserable time as the days become shorter, the cold and damp sets in and the festive season creates added pressure to be upbeat and socialise more. As the nights draw in we retreat earlier to our homes and as the temperature drops we turn the heating on and sit cozily in our living rooms heated to the recommended 21oC. Don’t we?

Sadly not. For over 7 million households across the UK this isn’t an option. As energy prices soar more and more people are finding themselves unable to afford to heat their homes to a level required to ensure good health and wellbeing (i.e. 21oC in the main living space and 18oC in bedrooms and other areas). Many households are finding they can barely afford sufficient fuel for cooking and hot water and are rationing their fuel use so heating the home becomes an unaffordable luxury.

It is recognised that living in a cold, damp home affects physical health and worsens respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis; increases the incidence of colds; raises blood pressure which in turn may increase the risk of strokes and heart attacks for some, and in extreme cases hypothermia/mild hypothermia may be an issue for very vulnerable households. Being in poor health can lead to poor mental health, but what are the direct effects of not being able to afford to heat your home on mental health?

Have you ever experienced sitting in the cold for a prolonged period? Not just an hour or two, but day-in day-out when you haven’t got the available funds to top-up your prepayment meter? Alternatively, have you ever experienced being so fed up that you eventually give in and turn the heating on only to constantly worry what it is costing you and the fuel debt you may be building up, or even that because you’re spending more money on fuel that you don’t have the money to pay for other essentials?

Have you lived in a property that is so cold that condensation released from breathing, bathing, cooking and drying clothes indoors is visible and leads to black mould appearing on windows, walls and ceilings and you can smell damp on your clothes and fabrics or in rooms? Would you want to invite people round to visit if this was the case?

A study carried out by Shelter in 2006 suggested that children in bad housing conditions, including cold homes, were more likely to have mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. 

The Warm Front and the Scottish Central Heating Programme evaluation assessed mental health impacts on adults living in cold, damp homes and both found that effects were prominent in the mental health domain, in particular for borderline anxiety and depression.  The study showed that as average bedroom temperature rose, the chances of occupants avoiding depression increased. Residents with bedroom temperatures at 21°C were 50% less likely to suffer depression and anxiety than those with temperatures of 15°C .

Fuel poverty is caused by three main factors: low income, high energy use and energy inefficient housing. Those living with mental health problems are often prone to fuel poverty as individuals are often on low or fixed incomes, living in energy inefficient housing and spend more time at home thus have above average energy use.

Limiting the negative effects of fuel poverty is important to health, both mental and physical, and NEA recommends the following top 10 tips as a starting point:

1. Income maximisation – seek support in checking your benefit entitlements and don’t be afraid to ask for help in appealing recent decisions made to cut certain benefits.

2. Budgeting – make sure essential bills such as mortgage/rent, utilities, groceries are paid off first to reduce stress and worry

3. Ensure you are on the best/cheapest tariff.  Try switching supplier if you’re not on the best tariff.  There are websites that can make this process easier. Ask your supplier if you are entitled to their Warm Home Discount which you will get as a rebate on your electricity bill.

4. Understand how to read the meter and submit regular meter readings to your energy supplier. Don’t ignore your energy bill when it arrives. If you are unable to afford your bill let your supplier know as soon as possible.  You can work out a repayment option with your supplier(s) that works for you.

5. Take the time to learn how to use your heating controls effectively.

6. Make sure the home is insulated as well as it can be – loft and cavity wall insulation can reduce heat loss by up to 40% meaning you have to have the heating on less to get the same benefit.

7. Ensure your home is well ventilated when cooking, bathing and drying clothes to prevent as much condensation and mould build-up as possible. Remember to remove excess water from windows and walls.

8. Use your curtains – if you can get thermal linings do so.  Curtains should be opened during the day to let sunshine and warmth in and closed at dusk to prevent heat escaping.

9. Keep yourself warm – wear appropriate clothing for the time of year and try to keep active.

10. Take Control (link to booklet) – “Somehow, getting one thing moving in one part of your life, helps you to get other bits moving, particularly if you give it a bit of a gentle shove”.

For more help and support on paying energy bills and heating the home contact NEA or MHNE.