Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Health in Housing

The stigmatization of mental illness continues to be the primary and most significant problem facing participants who are in search of affordable housing options. Persons with mental illness have long experienced stigma from society impacting their pursuit of employment opportunities, housing, adequate health care, and accessing community resources to name a few. Individuals with serious mental and persistent illnesses require a wide array of services, yet they face enormous hurdles in obtaining access to these services, resulting in poor life outcomes. Stigma and discrimination towards people with mental illness is existent and widespread throughout our society; however, until stigma is properly defined, it may be difficult to approach or decipher the problem. For this reason, the continuing social stigma attached to mental illness is one of the biggest obstacles housing providers face when helping their residents find and secure a permanent home.

What is Stigma?

Although there are many definitions to describe stigma, a common theme is the idea that it is a negative judgment based on a personal trait, or a display of social unacceptability against a person or particular group perceived to be outside the mainstream. It was once a common perception that having a mental illness was due to some kind of personal weakness. We now know that mental health disorders have a biological basis and can be treated like any other health condition. Even so, there is still a long way to go to overcome the many misconceptions, fears, and biases people have about mental health.

Stigma can be displayed in many ways from subtle, for example, assuming that one could be violent or dangerous because they have a mental health condition, or in a flagrant manner by explicitly denying the provision of services because of their race or nationality. The consequences of stigma in a mentally ill person can be devastating and is sometimes the primary barrier to the achievement of wellness and recovery as well as full social integration. Feelings of anger, frustration, shame and low self-esteem as well as discrimination at work, school, and in other areas of a person’s life leads to a feeling of hopelessness. The prevalence of mental health stigma seriously undermines an individual’s ability to get the help they need because of their fear that their confidentiality will be violated or fear being ridiculed by society.

Throughout our society, people from different ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds have been influenced by stereotypical biases and misconstrued perspectives consequently displaying harsh stigmatization towards the field of mental health. Without knowing it, people interact on a daily basis with individuals who are living productive lives while managing their mentally illnesses. However, it is the few that are not engaged in treatment, homeless, and exhibiting psychotic symptoms that are stereotyped and profiled as what represents mental illness. As a result, people with mental illness face many challenges such as exacerbated symptoms as they struggle to create a balance in coping with their diagnosis and the fallacies and misconceptions that society has about their illness.

The Impact on Housing Opportunities

In the area of wellness, research has shown that having a stable home is an important component in the life of a mentally ill person. It is not uncommon for individuals with serious and persistent mental illnesses to face difficulty when pursuing affordable housing options. Many live below the poverty level and cannot afford fair market rent. In addition, some do not have the capability to negotiate leasing contract or navigate the system of obtaining housing. Consequently, they are forced to live in substandard conditions exposing them to unsafe surroundings and high risk behaviors.

During the last twenty years, the emergence of supported housing programs became a key undertaking in offering affordable housing and social support for individuals with psychiatric disabilities. However, in an effort to maintain inequality in housing, stigma has been used to justify the underprivileged position of certain groups within our society. In the county of Westchester, New York, housing providers such as The Guidance Center of Westchester located in Mount Vernon, works incessantly to provide optimal housing services to individuals who are disabled. However, while dealing with their disability is a constant battle for those who are diagnosed with mental illness, the fight for housing equality is unending for both the housing participant and the housing providers. All too frequently, providers encounter barriers such as: landlords and some neighborhoods refusing to provide service to individuals with disability, landlords often refusing to accept subsidized rent payment, overpriced rent barring providers out of particular jurisdictions, low vacancy rates, and poor housing conditions due to limited financial resources. While many housing providers have partnered up with the Department of Community Mental Health and other agencies such as Westchester Residential Opportunities in advocating for fair and affordable housing, the struggle continues.

The insufficient financial resources of individuals with serious and persistent mental illness, combined with the limited and affordable housing opportunities in Westchester’s county, have made access to decent housing a continuous challenge, and have led some mental health service providers to become direct developers of housing and partners with other housing agencies. Too often the expansions of supported housing opportunities are compromised or faced with opposition from community members who fear devaluation to their property and neighborhood standards. Housing providers who operate within the same area or jurisdiction, constantly compete for the same vacant units which are often few and far in between. It is no wonder that individuals with limited resources are more likely to live in less desirable poverty ridden areas or deal with excessive overcrowding in confined locations. This distribution of substandard housing shows an obvious disparity in housing opportunities in the area of mental health.

Differences in housing opportunities based on stigma can be reduced if providers are vigilant in ensuring that the services and program they offer do not inadvertently stigmatize the individuals for whom the services and programs are intended. There needs to be an increase in public awareness in order for society to understand which groups are more vulnerable to stigma and the importance of enforcing corrective action in addressing housing disparity. Additionally, proper education of mental health issues is crucial to reducing the stigma attached to mental disability. All too often the facts are skewed and misrepresented when we educate individuals about mental health.

As providers, it is important that we first recognize and understand what stigma is, its origins, and the prejudices that influence it. We should not shy away from confronting it, assuming that it is beyond the reach of our capabilities. Society needs to understand that individuals with mental illness can and do recover and are able to live productive lives.

If we continue to ignore the effects of stigma and its prejudices, then we are justifying further inequality and encouraged repudiation to those individuals in search of life improvement opportunities.

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