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21 Jun 2021

'I can't see any way out': the mental health impact of the cladding crisis

Which? explores the extreme mental health toll of leaseholders living in unsafe buildings they can't afford to fix

Flat owners are suffering from severe stress, anxiety and depression as the building safety crisis wreaks havoc with their finances, new Which? research reveals.

Our social media survey of more than 1,700 affected leaseholders has laid bare the devastating mental health impact of the crisis, with almost all respondents saying it has had a fairly negative or very negative effect on their wellbeing.

Leaseholders have shared heartbreaking stories of sleepless nights, debilitating depression and stolen futures. Several have told us they had suicidal thoughts.

'I don't know of any leaseholder whose mental health isn't affected in some way due to this horrendous situation,' says Georgie Hulme (pictured) who owns a flat in Manchester.

Emma, a leaseholder from Middlesex, has also been impacted. She says: 'There have been days where I've just had to hide away in my office because I'm in tears and I can't get that under control.

'I have definitely had more suicidal ideation, which I have discussed with [my therapist]. She can see the impact of this on my mental health.'

Here, Which? reveals the mental health impact the ongoing cladding crisis is having on leaseholder's everyday lives.

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The cost of the crisis

More than four years after the Grenfell fire disaster, thousands of people across the country still live in flats that are unsafe.

Leaseholders in these flats are facing the dual burden of living in dangerous homes and paying the sky-high costs to make them safer. Because even though they don't own the actual buildings they live in - they just 'lease' the flats - building owners, known as freeholders, can legally pass costs on to them.

We've detailed the five major financial costs of the cladding crisis, from expensive inspections to ballooning insurance. Some leaseholders are facing bills of nearly £100,000 to fix flats that cost less than that to buy at the outset.

Since unsafe flats are almost impossible to sell, affected leaseholders can't simply move out to somewhere safe. Instead, they remain trapped while the bills pile up.

With this in mind, the huge toll on leaseholders' mental health sadly comes as no surprise.

'There have been times where it has completely overwhelmed me,' says Emma. 'I've felt really low, I haven't been able to stop crying, I've found it hard to work. I feel really upset, but I also feel really angry.'

'I can't see any way out'

Emma had already had treatment for anxiety and depression before she became aware of her building's safety issues.

'I had stopped taking medication. I've now gone back on to medication, just to kind of stabilise my mood a little bit because I'd felt very, very low.'

Medical professionals sometimes treat anxiety by helping patients stop 'catastrophising' - picturing the worst thing that could happen to them. Leaseholders trapped in unsafe flats have almost no choice but to do this.

They're faced with thinking about what they'd do if they lost their homes. They're researching how declaring bankruptcy actually works. They're fearing they'll never be able to move on with their lives, start families or enjoy a comfortable retirement.

'What is really hard is that there's no way to kind of u201cwork throughu201d this because it's external to me. There's nothing that I can change that will change this situation.

'For [leaseholders] it's that loss of control and that anxiety because you don't know what's going to happen. And also anger as well that people don't seem to be listening.'

Emma is angry at the government's response to the building safety crisis. It recently opposed an amendment that would have legally prevented freeholders from passing costs onto leaseholders. 'You take national things really personally because it is going to have a personal effect.'

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has said building owners shouldn't pass costs on to leaseholders, but there's nothing in law to stop them. More than £5bn in funding has been pledged to remove dangerous cladding, but many affected buildings are not eligible for support.

'It's not just myself going through this nightmare, but those who care about me'

As well as effects on their mental health, worryingly the majority of our survey respondents said the cladding scandal has had a negative impact on their physical health, too.

Georgie Hulme, a leaseholder in her early 40s from Manchester, was hospitalised with what resembled a stroke when she became unresponsive for 12 hours. Her consultant advised that this was due to high stress.

'I can be an anxiety and stress denier, I have to admit,' Georgie told us. 'But I can't, going through all this.'

'Such an extreme reaction to stress has reduced my independence and confidence. I worry if anything else is coming next. Is anyone assessing the human impact of all this on peoples' lives? I don't think so.'

Listen:the Which? Money Podcast talks to leaseholders, campaigners and experts about the building safety crisis.

Georgie co-founded the Cladding Disability Action Group (Claddag) to campaign on behalf of leaseholders with disabilities, like herself.

'As a disabled person or a carer, you learn you have to fight for everything, including benefits to services. To me, this is a totally different fight and on top of all the others.'

'My volunteering with Claddag is very important, as disabled people are often excluded from conversations, or we're overlooked and forgotten. We aim to change that. The impact on all our members' mental health is immense and varied.'

Georgie notes the impact the crisis has had on her loved ones: 'It's not just myself going through this nightmare, but those who care about me. My friends worry and so does my partner.'

She says her partner wrote a monologue that moved Georgie and others to tears when it was performed. 'I suppose the main part that hit home to me, was that he mentioned that I've lost my smile, which is one of the first things he noticed about me when we first met.'

Georgie says campaigning alongside other leaseholders helps give her a positive focus.

'Others in this situation also help spur me on, as do those who care about me. They understand that I have to fight. The stakes are too high not to and the alternative is inconceivable to me.

'It's such a huge chunk of my life, with no guarantees of a positive outcome and no end date. I will continue to fight, but this is likely to carry on for many years and so I can't see a future.

'It's like my life is on hold or paused and after everything, like others have before me, I could end up losing my home. So while there is some hope at times in campaigning, the reality is that I can only see bankruptcy.'

Money and mental health: where to go for help

If you're a leaseholder struggling with stress, depression and anxiety, the following organisations may be able to help:

Anyone struggling with mental health problems linked to finance can contact the following:

Find out more: Covid-19's money and mental health crisis