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10 Apr 2022

Cladding scandal: mental health woes continue despite government action

One leaseholder shares her story of anxiety diagnosis and treatment
Cladding protest

Flat owners across the country have been struggling with the mental health fallout of the building safety crisis.

Last year, Which? surveyed more than 1,700 affected leaseholders via social media, and almost all respondents said the crisis had had a fairly negative or very negative effect on their wellbeing.

Sophie Bichener (pictured above on stage at a cladding protest) is one of them. One year ago, Sophie, now 29 from Hertfordshire, was diagnosed with anxiety disorder due to the crisis.

Here, we look at the mental health toll the scandal is still taking on leaseholders and what help the government is offering.

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How is the cladding scandal affecting mental wellbeing?

Respondents to our survey last June shared distressing stories of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.

These findings were echoed by a report from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence at the University of Sheffield, published in November.

The report's author, Dr Jenny Preece, said: 'Speaking with those affected, our study clearly shows the widespread and severe impacts on leaseholders' mental wellbeing. These impacts do not just exist today, but in some cases will fundamentally affect people's lives for the long-term, even before any bills for remediation work have been received.'

In most cases, the threat of financial ruin from unaffordable remediation bills weighs heavier on leaseholders' minds than the threat of fire, according to the report.

Many leaseholders found the crisis has had a huge impact on their ability to make life choices, such as planning for the future, starting a family or moving house. It has also put 'significant strain' on leaseholders' relationships.

'I was just completely lost with everything'

Sophie Bichener found out her building was unsafe in the summer of 2020. For months, she lived with the uncertainty of who was going to pay for remediation work. It was always on her mind, since she was working from home due to the pandemic. 'I felt surrounded by it at all times,' she said.

'It was difficult to understand. It was also difficult to lose the pride that you had in buying a house for yourself, being able to achieve that at quite a young age.

'People have described it as a sort of grieving process. You have to come to terms with this being the thing that potentially bankrupts you or you lose your home or you drag your family into debt.'

In January 2021, Sophie had many key symptoms of anxiety disorder, though at the time she didn't know it.

'I had sleepless nights. I physically couldn't breathe a lot of the time. I kept saying to my partner I couldn't take a full breath, it was like my lungs were blocked. My jaw and all my muscles were really tight and I was really stressed all the time.

'I was crying a lot. Not necessarily about the building, about anything. My eating was a mess. I was sleeping one or two hours a night. You're lying awake thinking about the building and how unsafe it is. But also, how am I going to find this money? Are they gonna kick me out? Will I be taken to court?'

Sophie also worried about other leaseholders in her building, and how they were holding up under the pressure.

Sophie in flat
Sophie when she had just moved into her flat.

'You feel like a massive burden all the time'

Eventually, she filled out an online depression and anxiety self-assessment form (like this one from the NHS) and scored in the 'extremely high' range for anxiety.

'It shocked me. I didn't think I was that bad.'

The questionnaire asked if Sophie felt like a burden. 'Part of the building safety crisis is you feel like a massive burden all the time,' she said. 'There's no way out, so there's no positive spin to it at all. There are always negative conversations with all the people you care about.'

It also asks if patients feel like a failure, or that they've let their family down. Sophie said she did. 'I feel like a lot of people who bought a flat involved in the building safety crisis feel stupid. You feel like you've had the wool pulled over your eyes.'

Sophie went to her GP, who she says has been 'excellent' throughout her treatment.

'I had anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants. They really did help. They just allowed me to regulate my emotion, I suppose.'

She also had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), though her GP said she may need counselling in the long term to work through her experience in the crisis.

'There's still such a huge stigma around mental health'

Sophie said her treatment helped her develop coping mechanisms and ways to spot the signs of anxiety. She's spoken to the media a lot about her experience as a leaseholder, but she now knows when to take a step back from campaigning.

She's keen to encourage others to seek help and support if they're going through what she went through. 'For a lot of people it's very difficult to open up about how you're feeling at that time and what your thoughts are.'

Sophie also feels the government should be providing or signposting mental health support for leaseholders. She feels fortunate to have the support system she has, but she fears for the people who may have 'fallen through the cracks'.

What support is the government providing?

The government has made several announcements on the building safety crisis since Michael Gove took over as housing secretary.

A proposed new 'waterfall' process will see a building's developers called on to pay for remediation first, followed by the building's current owner (which may still be the developer) and then finally leaseholders.

Leaseholders will only be charged if building owners 'do not have the resources to pay', and leaseholder contributions will be capped at £10,000 outside London and £15,000 in London in these instances.

The cap is retroactive for five years, meaning leaseholders who have already paid over £15,000 will not have to pay more.

This week alone, several housing developers signed an industry pledge to pay to fix fire safety issues on all of their buildings over 11 metres, at the government's insistence.

If they don't pay to remove unsafe cladding from their buildings, developers could face government sanctions.

Barratt expects to spend £350m to £400m on fire safety works, while Bellway predicts works will cost £300m.

What leaseholders think of the plans

The government says this new approach will free 'hundreds of thousands of innocent leaseholders from shouldering an unfair financial burden'. But the response from leaseholders hasn't been universally positive.

End Our Cladding Scandal's Giles Grover says: 'We have seen some positive steps forward in recent months but innocent leaseholders are still far from being freed from the nightmare we have been forced to live through for years - years of our lives that we will never get back.

'The complexity of the government's latest amendments, being forced through parliament at the very last minute, have only added to our anguish as we try to decipher just who will be protected and to what extent this may be.

'What we can say for certain is that there are still too many gaps in the current proposals with too many ordinary people still being wilfully ignored and left to fend for themselves.

'Until we have true certainty that we will be protected from issues we played no part in causing, this public health crisis will endure and our life opportunities will only continue to be levelled down. This will be the legacy of the government's abject failure to protect its citizens.'

Sophie echoed some of these concerns. Rather than celebrating, after each government announcement she says she and fellow leaseholders are parsing through the detail, trying to figure out exactly what it all means.

News coverage of the government's proposals has led to some difficult conversations, where leaseholders have had to explain to friends and family that the 'good news' might not quite be good enough.

'I actually went on a run the other day,' said Sophie, 'and someone's dad, who I haven't seen since secondary school, shouted u201cIt's good news about your building!u201d across the road at me. And I was like, u201cYep, no. Still not really, but thank you.u201d'

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: 'The building safety crisis has seen blameless leaseholders shoulder a desperately unfair burden for too long.

'That is why we are putting in place unprecedented legal protections for leaseholders, shielding them from massive bills and making sure the industry pays for the problem that it caused.'

Where to get help for mental health issues

Leaseholders struggling with stress, depression and anxiety can contact the following organisations:

  • Mind: free mental health advice and support. 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans: 24-hour emotional support. 116 123 (also via email at jo@samaritans.org)
  • NHS: your GP can advise on mental health diagnoses and treatment, and refer you to local mental health services

If you are struggling with mental health problems linked to finance, you can speak to: