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Mental health – are we doing enough in the HMO sector?

richard milner coho

One might immediately answer 'no' to this question, but does the HMO property industry possess adequate understanding of this delicate subject to address it effectively?

First, a bit of background on my experiences and why mental health is so close to my heart.

Twenty years ago, my youngest brother began displaying erratic and irrational behavior. Days of complete silence were followed by outbursts of anger, confusion, and bewildering comments, deeply upsetting our entire family. While he had always been somewhat distinct, favoring computer games and shying away from social interaction, we attributed this to his upbringing. However, we were mistaken.

My parents struggled to cope, my siblings were emotionally shattered, and as the eldest, I felt my only role was to maintain cohesion among us.

Sadly, matters came to a head on Christmas Eve, leaving us no choice but to have my brother sectioned. I recall that day vividly, packing a bag in preparation to stay with him until he improved. Ultimately, we knew he was in the best place, albeit painfully, and the visible relief on my parents' faces upon our return was palpable. Though a portion of the burden had been lifted, an entrenched sense of guilt lingered.

Gruelling

What ensued was six grueling weeks of doctor assessments and trials with various treatments and medications. Throughout, our predominant query persisted: 'What afflicts him, and how can we rectify it?' Our emotions often clouded our judgment as we scrutinised the system, the actions of the medical professionals, and visitation schedules. This internal strife proved unhelpful. What we truly required was education, prompting our family's collective research efforts.

Then, unexpectedly, a breakthrough arrived; for reasons unknown, my brother's behavior normalized, leading to his discharge after eight weeks. Our elation was profound, yet we harbored no illusions that the real work had just commenced. How could we avert a recurrence, given the high propensity for relapse?

Extensive research, participation in focus groups, and consultations with my brother's doctor facilitated our comprehension of potential trigger points for his relapse. Despite difficulties arising from conflicting family theories that still linger to this day, we persisted.

Years passed, I got married and had two children. During that time, my brother gained confidence and finally came out as gay — something I had suspected but was immensely proud of him for embracing.

However, one weekend, the strange behavior resurfaced. Even though we identified some trigger points early, it escalated rapidly and was significantly worse. This time, he became violent and I had to restrain him, eventually having to force him to the ground. This was not our brother; he had relapsed, and immediate action was necessary. What had we missed, why didn’t we see this sooner?

Devastated

My parents were devastated, and I found myself once again in the familiar role of trying to maintain our family's stability. His condition had significantly worsened, as warned it might. I refrain from delving into the subsequent months' experiences, an ordeal I wouldn't wish upon anyone. Eventually, my parents required respite, prompting my other brother and me to assume full responsibility.

Our complementary approaches, my directness juxtaposed with my other brother's empathy and understanding, proved effective. Progress ensued in tandem with improvements in his state of mind. Upon my parents' return, they received news of his relocation to a 'halfway house.' While initially promising, old behavioral patterns resurfaced. Yet this time, we were equipped with coping strategies and support systems for my brother.

Addressing a gambling addiction  with my brother further complicated matters, but as a family, we achieved unity, making joint decisions even amid disagreements. Learning when to confront him directly and when to exercise restraint was pivotal, resulting in significant improvements. Presently, m y brother leads a fulfilling life with his partner, the happiest I have ever witnessed.

However, we remain vigilant for any signs that may cause my brother to relapse. COVID was a concern, but thankfully, all has been well.

Relevance

You may question the relevance of this narrative to the property industry, specifically the HMO sector . It holds relevance for everyone. Over the last six months, I've spoken to many in the property industry about this topic, and it's amazing to hear how many feel they aren't the same person as they were before COVID.

In particular landlords with a portfolio of HMOs who simply cannot cope with the stress that managing them brings, and that tenants in HMOs typically face higher levels of mental illness due to lower income.  

Yet within a houseshare there's the unique opportunity for landlords to help by creating a community environment that encourages them to be open and support each other. I know landlords who provide a free subscription to a mental health line. Offering education about MS in the welcome pack for example.

Challenging

The most challenging aspect is the inability to definitively diagnose mental illness due to the brain's complexity. It's unlike mending a broken bone, where a cast ensures complete healing in eight weeks, often even stronger than before.

Often, doctors must experiment with various drugs to ascertain the most effective response, with no guarantees of success. From my experience, education stands as the paramount tool in our arsenal. Understanding the genesis of mental illness, its ramifications, recognising signs of distress, and adopting supportive measures are fundamental.

Often, the strongest individuals harbor past experiences unbeknownst to others. It's essential not to hastily judge based solely on outward appearances.

COVID undoubtedly added to this, especially with most of our industry working from home. Isolation isn't easy for anyone, and not being around others certainly influenced some.

Thriving

While our industry has thrived during the pandemic, we shouldn't let success blind us to what's happening behind the scenes. Exceptional highs are just as dangerous as the lows, and we all need to prepare for the inevitable changes in the current property market, not just from a business perspective but also for our people.

I am confident that each of us knows at least ten individuals grappling with some form of mental illness—be it anxiety, depression, or something more severe.

If you're concerned about your tenants, colleagues, or co-workers in the property sector, I implore you to take action rather than doing nothing. A landlord’s responsibility can be more than the legal requirements nowadays.

Chances are, one of them is battling some form of mental illness, and they might be too afraid to speak up or even realise something is wrong. If a tenant is suffering, they are likely to be missing work and then in turn are more at risk to enter into arrears with their rent.

Education is crucial, but a quick phone call, regular contact, and instilling confidence in people to open up about their struggles are immensely important. Above all, listen—be patient and show empathy."

Richard Milner is Sales Director at HMO software platform COHO.

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