The recent foreclosure crisis, which skyrocketed from 650,000 homes in 2007 to 2.9 million just three years later, was an economic disaster, but it also triggered a mental health crisis for many as they struggled to stay financially afloat.
A new study led by a Yale School of Public Health researcher and published recently in the American Journal of Public Health found that some people facing the prospect of losing their homes experienced depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
The study sample was African American, predominantly female and included many older and long-term homeowners. The research team, led by Danya E. Keene, assistant professor in the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology, interviewed 28 homeowners living in a northeastern U.S. city who were experiencing mortgage strain. This included people who were behind on their mortgage payments, people who had recently caught up but still faced financial difficulties and people who were paying their mortgages at the expense of other basic necessities.
The study found that in addition to stress associated with financial difficulties and the threat to home ownership, participants experienced their mortgage strain as a source of stigma. Participants described feeling embarrassed by mortgage troubles that often threatened the pride and status that homeownership had conferred. In the context of this stigma, they often concealed their trouble from friends and family, leading to isolation and creating barriers to receiving support.
“We find that these experiences of stigma and isolation can make the difficult circumstances of mortgage strain and default even more challenging,” said Keene. “Our data suggest that this stigma may exacerbate depression and anxiety that are associated with mortgage strain.”
Nearly half the participants met the diagnostic criteria for depression. Experiences of hopelessness, anxiety and insomnia were common, with four participants describing having suicidal thoughts while in the midst of their mortgage troubles.
While mortgage strain stigma isn’t unique to African Americans, the pride associated with homeownership and the experiences of stigma related to its threatened loss could be more acute for them, given their long history of racial barriers to property acquisition, the researchers said. Foreclosure prevention campaigns that emphasize the structural causes of this common experience (such as job loss and predatory lending) may help to reduce stigma and improve mental health, the authors said. “Our data suggest that stigma may exacerbate the stress associated with an already very difficult situation,” Keene said. Researchers from the University of Wyoming and New York University co-authored the study.