Bad housing harms mental health of mothers and children, finds ESRI report

Children living in cold, damp and overcrowded homes have ‘much poorer’ outcomes

The damaging impact on mothers’ mental health of living in a home that is cold, damp and overcrowded is leading to “much poorer” outcomes for their children, a landmark study published on Thursday finds.

“Mothers experiencing inadequate housing and poor-quality neighbourhoods tend to have higher levels of depression, worse self-rated health, and find parenting more stressful, as well as reporting greater conflict and less closeness with their children,” finds the report from Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

Titled Housing, Health and Happiness: How Inadequate Housing Shapes Child and Parental Wellbeing, the study notes longer time spent in “inadequate housing” leads to “more negative wellbeing outcomes”.

Drawing on data from the longitudinal Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study, the report focuses on children born in 2008, assessing their wellbeing at age nine. It find low-income households and those headed by lone parents, migrants or disabled people are “more likely” to live “in unsuitable homes, to struggle to heat these homes and to reside in areas characterised by greater disorder and lower levels of social capital”.


Children in these homes “have much poorer socio-emotional wellbeing ... This is largely due to the effects of housing and neighbourhood quality on maternal wellbeing”.

The nine-year-olds’ wellbeing was measured using a 20-point “strengths and difficulty questionnaire” (SDQ), examining their emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, and peer problems, to provide an “overall measure [of their] socio-emotional wellbeing”. Higher scores indicate lower wellbeing.

Mothers who struggle to keep their home adequately warm report “more depressive symptoms” and “a more conflictual and less close relationship with their child”. They find parenting more stressful and have “worse self-rated health”.

Mothers in homes with issues such as damp and mould report more depressive symptoms, while those in areas with “greater social and physical disorder” have poorer wellbeing across all outcomes – including depression; less warm and more hostile parenting styles. They find parenting more stressful and “report more conflict and less closeness with their child”.

Mothers “living longer in privately rented homes compared to an owned home” have more depressive symptoms, find parenting more stressful and have a more hostile parenting style.

Mothers in social housing, compared to owned homes, have a less consistent parenting style and worse self-rated health but find parenting less stressful, while mothers living longer with their child’s grandparents have less consistent parenting.

The report states: “Each of these mothers’ [negative] outcomes is associated with worse SDQ scores among children”.

Inadequate housing is “much more common in urban areas” and “most frequently experienced in Dublin compared to other regions (with a few exceptions),” it adds.

As the report relies on GUI data, the authors caution families in the “worst forms of housing disadvantage” – homeless, many Travellers and Roma and those in direct provision – are not captured as their numbers are “often too small to analyse” independently. “The findings may therefore underestimate the effects of some of the most extreme forms of housing exclusion,” they say.

“Having a home that is safe, warm, physically sound, not overcrowded, and embedded in a supportive community with access to necessary local services provides the foundation for family life.”

Measures to improve outcomes for families in substandard housing could include incentives to private landlords to retrofit and insulate homes let to vulnerable families; further targeted supports to families in fuel poverty; and a second tier of child benefit payment targeted at lower-income families.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times