‘Trapped’, ‘anxious’ and ‘traumatised’: COVID-19 intensified the impact of housing inequality on Australians’ mental health

Bower, Marlee; Buckle, Caitlin; Rugel, Emily; Donohoe-Bales, Amarina; McGrath, Laura; Gournay, Kevin; Barrett, Emma; Phibbs, Peter and Teesson, Maree (2021). ‘Trapped’, ‘anxious’ and ‘traumatised’: COVID-19 intensified the impact of housing inequality on Australians’ mental health. International Journal of Housing Policy, 23(2) pp. 260–291.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19491247.2021.1940686


Increased time spent at home during COVID-19 exposed inequities in Australian housing quality and availability. Many Australians lack sufficient space to carry out activities shifted to their homes and the financial downturn rapidly increased stress around housing affordability. Research demonstrates living in unaffordable or poor-quality housing can negatively impact residents’ mental health. This study explores the mechanisms through which housing moderates COVID-19’s impact on mental health by analysing 2,065 Australians surveyed in mid-to-late 2020. Hierarchical linear regressions were used to examine associations between housing circumstances, neighbourhood belonging and mental-health outcomes (loneliness, depression, and anxiety), adjusted for demographics. Open-ended responses were analysed using thematic analysis and critical-realist epistemology. Feeling ‘trapped’ and ‘helpless’ because of insecure tenure or lack of money to improve housing conditions reduced participants’ sense of control. Inadequate space and noise adversely impacted participants’ well-being. Participants’ housing context – including amenities, natural spaces, and social connections – strongly impacted their emotional experiences. Safe, secure, and suitable housing is a known determinant of safety and physical health; this study suggests it is also a critical factor for Australians’ mental health. To improve mental health among the vulnerably-housed, future housing policy should not compromise on housing affordability, quality, space and access to nearby amenities.

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