Depression and suicide risk double in high school students facing housing deprivation

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland release the latest findings from New Zealand's Youth2000 surveys.

High school students facing housing deprivation have double the rates of depression and suicide risk, according to a large-scale study based on the Youth2000 surveys co-led by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland.

As many as 29 percent of high school students experienced at least one form of housing deprivation in the previous 12 months, says the universities’ Youth19 Housing Deprivation Brief.

Among those students, 40 percent had clinically significant depressive symptoms—double the rate of students not facing housing deprivation.

Associate Professor Terry Fleming from Te Herenga Waka’s School of Health, who co-led the study, says this level of depressive symptoms is likely to be affecting their everyday lives and warrants clinical assessment.

“This is a major problem when mental health services are only funded to see 3 to 5 percent of young people and primary health services are frequently overloaded,” she says.

A third of the students facing housing deprivation had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.

“This is a disaster. New Zealand has high suicide rates among young people. We must be addressing risk factors like housing deprivation that exacerbate these risks,” say Associate Professor Fleming.

“We cannot fix mental health by more mental health services alone. We have to meet young people’s basic needs or we will always be in a crisis.”

The data comes from a 2019 survey of 7,721 adolescents from 49 Auckland, Northland, and Waikato high schools and kura kaupapa Māori.

Forms of housing deprivation include inadequate accommodation such as couch-surfing, bed-sharing, or sleeping in cars, marae, hostels, or emergency housing.

Associate Professor Fleming says improving mental health requires more services and easy access to help, as well as addressing the determinants of distress.

“These include adverse childhood experiences, material deprivation, and lack of a safe secure home. Affordable quality housing is a basic human right and an area where New Zealand does much more poorly than it did decades ago—and compares poorly with other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“While there have been important government actions in providing more health services, we have no substantive change in housing deprivation. This requires sustained and systemic action or New Zealanders will suffer for decades to come.”

The study’s co-leader, Associate Professor Terryann Clark from the University of Auckland’s School of Nursing, says most people would be astounded to know so many young people turn up to school every day facing serious housing problems.

“In some cases, families are split up because their accommodation is too small. In others, young people are left couch-surfing or, in the worst cases, sleeping in cars, marae, or emergency housing, and yet they still turn up to school every day.”

When asked about the previous 12 months:

  • 10 percent reported living in inadequate accommodation, such as sleeping in a garage, on the floor, couch-surfing, or sharing a bed because there was nowhere else to sleep
  • 2 percent reported “serious housing deprivation”, a sub-category that included sleeping in cars, marae, hostels, or emergency housing
  • 15 percent said their families often or always worried about paying the rent or mortgage
  • 10 percent reported their families had split up because of accommodation that was too small (because large houses cost too much or are unavailable)
  • 7 percent said they had moved homes two or more times in the past year.

The problems identified in the study were not evenly spread, affecting Māori and ethnic minoritiesmore frequently. Youth with disabilitiesand Rainbow and takataapuiyouth were also likely to fare worse than others.

Commenting on the study, Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children Glenis Philip-Barbara says: “It should be seen as a national emergency that mokopuna Māori and disabled, Rainbow, and Pacific young people are so unjustly impacted by a lack of affordable, high-quality housing.

“All children and young people have the right to a warm, dry, safe affordable home to call their own. When they don’t have these basic rights met, it affects their mental wellbeing, education, and health now and into adulthood.”

The Housing Deprivation Brief is at