The last year and a half have been a struggle for all of us, and that’s putting it lightly.
But in terms of mental health, apartment-dwelling Americans—especially those living alone—may have suffered more mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic than those living with their families in the suburbs, suggests new research from the University of Georgia.
Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the study showed that individuals living in multifamily housing units, like apartment complexes, were more likely to experience mental health problems than people in standalone homes or condos. Renters also had higher odds of experiencing mental health issues during the pandemic than those homeowners.
“I fervently believe that your housing environment can have some kind of impact on your mental health, especially during COVID,” said Andy Carswell, a professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Research has shown that renters, particularly those living in high-density complexes, are more prone to mental health crises in general, but the pandemic appeared to compound that effect.
“In most renter environments, the resident doesn’t have as much control as he or she would like,” Carswell said. Noisy neighbors, outdoor space, even whether the resident can own pets all depend on the rental company’s rules. “When you don’t have control, that can wear on your mental health, cause anxiety and make you a little more depressed.”
As social opportunities dried up, people living solo had a harder time mentally coping than those who lived with family members.
“One side of the coin is that sense of relief—'I live alone.’ There’s a much smaller chance of me getting the virus if I live alone,’” Carswell said. “But there’s a loneliness epidemic out there too. According to our data, your mental health gets better as more people enter the picture: The more people in the housing unit, the better people’s mental health was.”
The researchers relied on data from the Household Pulse Survey, a randomized online survey from the Census Bureau that collected information on how people’s lives have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. On average, over 80,000 households per week participated, with more than 1.5 million total participants over the study period.
The survey included a variety of questions, including employment status, food security and job security. Participants were also asked about how often they felt depressed, anxious or worried over the past week.
For renters, a variety of factors likely came into play. Tighter living quarters in high-density buildings means an increased likelihood of running into someone in the hall and possibly being exposed to the virus. Rounds of lockdowns meant more people were staying home 24/7, potentially upping the probability of interaction with others in the building as well.
Using traditional amenities like apartment gyms or pools became a calculated risk—if they weren’t closed by management to curb the spread.
Renters also typically have moderate to low incomes, and the pandemic likely exacerbated already existing financial anxieties. The possibility of eviction was an ever-present threat until moratoriums were passed.
Regardless of a participant’s housing situation, mental health issues were pervasive throughout all residential units.
A mental wellness certification program for rental buildings does exist. Based on academic research studies, the Fitwel certification system was originally created by the CDC to improve health and well-being in buildings and communities. But extensive protocols for protecting residents’ mental health are still fairly rare.
“The big takeaway is that—no surprise—housing matters,” Carswell said. “In defining one of the problems of the many layers of problems that COVID brings, mental health has really been a hidden aspect of this whole pandemic.”
Jyotsna Ghimire, a doctoral student in the Department of Financial Planning, Housing and Consumer Economics, was lead author of the study. Pamela Turner, professor and Extension housing and indoor environment specialist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and Ramesh Ghimire, from the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, co-authored the paper.
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