Last week saw World Mental Health Day (10 October), an opportunity for everyone to discuss their experiences and suggest solutions for this much-stigmatised illness. The good news is that in recent years, talking openly about mental health issues has become much more widespread. I saw a great example of this first-hand recently, at the annual Alternative Residential Property Conference.
This is not where you might expect to hear the topic come up, perhaps. ‘Alternative residential’ refers to student accommodation, care homes and every type of accommodation beyond what you’d consider a normal home. This includes co-living (co-working’s sibling), dementia-friendly villages and build to rent properties.
I was struck by the number of property providers who spoke about the mental health impact of different types of accommodation and building design. This has certainly been a big topic for the student accommodation sector recently. Linstock has been working with Campus Living Villages over the last year to look at what providers can do to boost student wellbeing.
But the conference went beyond student property. The efforts of co-living brands to tackle mental health stood out. With such a strong focus on university students in the media, there has been little attention given to what happens when they graduate. 25-year olds can experience the same levels of anxiety and isolation as they did in their first year at university, particularly when there are parallels around moving into a house share with unknown people, or moving to a new city.
Providers such as The Collective hope to address some of these issues through the type of accommodation they provide. It encourages people to be sociable, with lots of open spaces. They also consider cost carefully: most of their residents are on relatively low salaries for London and would be unable to afford to rent a flat on their own, or to even think about buying.
Beyond younger people, I saw that retirement providers are also looking at ways to address poor mental health. One retirement homes provider, Birchgrove, provides residents with a budgie or pot plant for them to look after while living in the accommodation. The aim is to give residents something to focus on and nurture, ultimately creating feelings of happiness and a sense of purpose.
There were many of these uplifting examples at the conference and they highlighted two important trends. Firstly, talking about mental health more openly and freely than ever before is leading to these subtle but vital innovations.
Secondly, tackling an important issue like mental health is a common cause for this broad sector. Some of us will have heard of dementia villages or co-living spaces; many of us will have little first-hand experience until we need to, though. By taking a problem like residents’ health and finding ways to help them, the profile and reputation of alternative accommodation providers will improve.
Ultimately, if alternative providers remain trailblazers on important social matters, they may well force themselves into the property mainstream.