Imagine choosing between heating your home in the harsh months of winter and putting a meal on the table for your loved ones. This is the decision that those that find themselves in fuel poverty often have to make.
Not only is it a very serious problem but it affects a large number of people in the UK. The latest Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics Report released by the government calculates that just over four million people are currently suffering from fuel poverty. Whilst those in social housing are even worse affected - they are four times more likely to experience fuel poverty than those in other types of housing.
Cold homes can, and often do, lead to physical health problems for residents including increasing the risks of high blood pressure, pneumonia, and respiratory problems. Mental health problems, however, are just as prominent but are too often overlooked when it comes to fuel poverty. A study conducted by the National Centre for Social Research found that around 28% of young people experiencing fuel poverty were at risk of mental health issues compared to just 4% of those living in a warm home. Another study conducted by the World Health Organization found that residents who had a bedroom temperature of 21°C were half as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety that those with bedroom temperatures just 5°C lower.
While research on this area has been increasing it is not yet in the mainstream and is often ignored in conversations surrounding fuel poverty. This is even more concerning when those in social housing, where fuel poverty is the most prevalent, experience higher rates of mental health issues compared to those in the private housing sector.
A shelter study concluded that 8 out of 10 people who suffer from mental health issues who currently reside in social housing reported that their housing contributes to their mental wellbeing.
We need to start considering the mental health consequences of fuel poverty as seriously as we think about the physical consequences. Both limit the wellbeing of residents and both should be thought about equally when trying to address the fuel poverty crisis in the UK. If mental health is ignored in the conversation, how can we ever hope to begin solving the steadily growing crisis we face?
It’s not all bad news though. A lot has been done in recent years to address fuel poverty, namely increasing the energy efficiency of properties and boilers so that less energy is wasted when heating the property. Other measures such as providing fuel allowances to older people as well as educating residents on how to heat their homes efficiently are helping to tackle the problem.
Investing in technology is now also becoming more common as an effective way to tackle fuel poverty. New technologies like smart thermostats can help heat residents' homes in the most efficient way for their needs, saving residents money. Switchee’s smart thermostat does this, as well as providing crucial property health information to landlords to aid in maintenance. Switchee identifies properties at risk of fuel poverty so that preventative measures can be taken to help residents early on.