Skip to main content

Finding yourself unable to adequately heat your home can not only lead to poor physical health but can also increase the risk of severe mental health distress, according to new overseas research.

University of Otago Public Health senior researcher, Dr Kimberley O’Sullivan, has been looking at the findings and says there are lessons for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Dr O’Sullivan says a UK study using data from a large longitudinal study focused on people who at one point said they were able to heat their home adequately but then later said that was no longer the case. “The research shows this change in circumstance significantly increases in the odds of reporting severe mental distress.”

For people with good mental health initially, the odds of reporting severe mental distress after becoming unable to keep the home adequately warm almost doubled. When people were already experiencing mental health distress initially, the odds of severe mental health distress were more than tripled when they became unable to heat their homes.

The new research aligns with previous studies in this area. Research using longitudinal survey data from Australia has shown that being in energy poverty lowers subjective wellbeing or life satisfaction.

In the latest Public Health Communication Briefing, Dr O’Sullivan says in Aotearoa those most at risk of what is called energy poverty include Māori and Pasifika peoples, older people, households with children and especially single parent households, tertiary students and disabled persons. “Just before the pandemic nearly 8% of New Zealand households reported they could not afford to keep their homes adequately heated. With 42% of households telling the Consumer Advocacy Council it is harder to pay for electricity now than a year ago, it is likely that more people will be unable to afford heating this winter.”

The Winter Energy Payment policy is designed to help households in Aotearoa receiving the government superannuation and some other welfare packages to keep warm during winter. But Dr O’Sullivan says there have been difficulties assessing the impact. “Better targeting the Winter Energy Payment to those most at risk such as households with children, disabled people and low-income households plus increasing payments may be more likely to achieve the goal of keeping warm in their homes,” she says.

Dr O’Sullivan says we know that relatively simple interventions that make small improvements in our housing quality so that people can keep warm at home have positive effects on social, health, and economic wellbeing. “For example, evaluation of the extremely successful cross-government Healthy Homes Initiative programme shows that it has reduced hospitalisations by almost 20%, as well as increasing school attendance and employment among people living in these households.”

“It is clear that supporting people to live in warm housing during a time of increasing living and energy costs in Aotearoa will avoid social, economic, and mental health harm. We must continue improving housing quality and we urgently need stronger energy consumer protections in Aotearoa to ensure everyone has access to warm, dry, healthy housing.”

4 April 2023


Briefing CTA

The Briefing

Get the latest insights from the public health research community delivered straight to your inbox for free. Subscribe to stay up to date with the latest research, analysis and commentary from the Public Health Expert Briefing.