By Seija Grant, MEd CP, RP
I decided to write an article to shed light on this topic as I have had several clients who could not focus on higher level tasks (such as counselling goals) because of having insecure or unstable housing. I was also asked by a friend to participate in an interview about the impact of poor housing quality on mental health—so I started to research the subject. This article is primarily about students but the information is still relevant for those in the working world.
I am not sure if you are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, so I will give you a brief overview. It is a longstanding psychology theory of human motivation. The premise is that there are universal human needs that come together to form a healthy individual. Maslow depicted them in a pyramid shaped hierarchy.
At the base of the pyramid are BASIC NEEDS. These are the most important; the basis of a person’s functioning. If a man has no home or family, he can still survive with his physiological needs met. Next, safety needs. And these are the focus of this article. Safety is having a place to rest your head at night, a place where you can feel relatively safe and comfortable, where the heat and the lights are on and your stuff will generally always be where you left it.
The next tier of the pyramid is PSYCHOLOGICAL NEEDS (examples: social belonging and self-esteem).
The top of the pyramid is made up of SELF-FULFILLMENT NEEDS, which are complex, such as self-actualization (to be able to reach your full potential, be the best version of yourself—ideal for student success).
If you do not have secure housing or safety—it would be pretty difficult to function in other areas of life. Without a foundation, we cannot skip ahead to the higher-level needs. If you are a student or somebody trying to make it in the working world—guess what…pretty hard to focus on those higher-level tasks (performing in school or work) when you are distracted by thoughts of finding safe and stable housing or the risks associated with that. It can then impact your performance, as well as mental, physical and emotional health.
Let me be clear, this is a HUGE stressor.
If you do have housing and it is in poor condition and/or you have little privacy, due to having to share facilities such bathrooms and kitchen, you may feel like you can’t function properly in such an environment. This is can also be a result of poor facilities — unsafe water, unsanitary bathrooms/toilets and poorly ventilated rooms. Living in a hygienic and sanitary living environment has a great influence on the growth and development of a student, both mentally and physically.
Poor housing, as an immediate environmental stressor, plays an essential role in the psychological well-being of students. Research has shown that poor health seems to be the underlying factor for students’ low performance and/or even early school dropout. Other factors related to basic needs also impact the student’s success such as transportation (having to travel a long distance to get to school may mean missing some important lectures), lack of funds for school fees, and not having emotional support from family, could all contribute to poor academic outcomes. The financial, mental and emotional stress of living in a new environment (new school, new city, or new country for some) and having no social supports can be extremely stressful—thus ensuring the basic needs of students are met is ESSENTIAL for students to succeed and thrive.
The World Health Organization provided recommendations that housing should be located in a setting which has satisfactory commercial, social, religious, educational, welfare and health facilities. Individuals who do not have access to these resources will experience a great deal of stress.
Across Canada, there is a severe shortage of decent quality housing that is affordable to those with low incomes, and much of the housing that is available is inadequate. The poor condition of housing for students or those with low income can contribute to worsening health, adversely affecting their education and having to reside in neighbourhoods that are more prone to crime and violence.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem, as it is a significant societal issue.
What do you think can be done improve this situation? Please share your ideas with us! Let’s get talking about important issues that impact mental well-being in our community.
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