Last week we attended an inquest as part of our research into deaths by suicide. We heard how a man had been unable to use the stairs in his accommodation or leave his flat. This meant that he couldn’t buy food or top up electricity for his home, unless a family member did it for him. He lived alone. He clearly had an urgent need for more appropriate housing.
He had been told to go online to access different council or social housing. In our county, you have to go onto a website and “bid for” (express interest in) other properties. A relative explained in her evidence that he had found using computers difficult and had struggled to access the internet. It had proved impossible for him to do this.
Poignantly, the only documents which the police found close to him after his death were notes he had written, which appeared to be part of an application for housing.
His father had died days before his suicide. He had been unable to visit his father during his final days, nor attend his funeral. This recent bereavement combined with his inability to see or pay his respects to his father must have been exceptionally painful for him.
After the inquest, his family member said she felt that the main triggers to his suicide were his health and physical difficulties, combined with the difficulties he had with using technology. She felt that his inability to access appropriate housing was a significant factor.
We have seen the impact of housing on the suicide risk of a number of our clients. It has never been a sole factor, but it has been a significant contributory factor in some cases. Sometimes it has been a “final trigger” which comes on top of a number of other factors increasing their suicide risk. This final trigger leads them to make a suicide attempt.
I recall very clearly Tasmin’s case. A member of her family had been involved in criminal activity and she had been threatened as a result. She had reason to believe that her life was at risk. Indeed, her GP wrote a letter to support her application for alternative social housing which included the phrase “She is in danger of losing her life”.
Shockingly, this did not place her on the most urgent banding in terms of priority for alternative housing. Like the man whose inquest I attended last week, Tasmin was told to go online to bid for alternative housing. Whenever she bid on another property, she found people on a higher band were given priority, and they were allocated the property.
We questioned the banding she was on, but weeks later we were told they were “still investigating” the matter. There seemed to be no sense of urgency about moving her.
In the end, we and other concerned agencies contacted her current social housing provider and they were able to arrange a direct transfer to a property in another area, to ensure her safety.
It does sometimes seem to need the intervention of outside agencies to ensure that a vulnerable person is moved.
Aaron was another client whose housing impacted on his suicide risk. He lived alone in a flat. Aaron had a physical disability and mental health issues. He told us that he was being targeted by other people in the area where he lived. They would shout threats through his letterbox. They also knew the person in one of the adjoining flats and would congregate there, hammering on the walls and shouting abuse.
When he phoned us, he was at the point where he could no longer take it. He said he would rather take his own life than wait for them to end it. He felt that they were going to carry out their threats to kill him.
As well as contacting the police as a matter of urgency, we provided immediate support to Aaron. We also got in contact with social services and other agencies.
Aaron’s situation had a good outcome. He was moved to supported housing and now has accommodation in a housing complex, where he lives alongside other residents. He didn’t have to bid for properties.
Aaron has become very close to two of the residents and considers them to be like family. He is no longer isolated, and he is safe. It has made a massive difference to his life and to his mental health. Late one night he phoned us to say he was in the middle of a party in his accommodation. Only the other residents were invited. He was just phoning to let us know that he was fine.
Aaron’s experience is what should happen in situations where the person is vulnerable, at risk or in unsuitable accommodation. This is particularly the case where the person has physical disabilities or mental health diagnoses.
They should not be left, like the man last week, to bid for properties online. The appropriate agencies should intervene to arrange a move to suitable accommodation.
Names have been changed
Joy runs a Suicide Crisis Centre in Gloucestershire. For information: http://www.suicidecrisis.co.uk