As someone who spent 10 of my 13 years in property management, I’ve had firsthand experience dealing with tenants who have mental health issues.

Mental illness can cause symptoms such as introversion, aggression, anxiety, and paranoia, and those who suffer from it may not have a support network to check in on them.

As part of our obligations as agents, we regularly inspect properties and communicate with our clients on various tenancy matters, often alone. But when we are dealing with tenants who may not be in a “normal” mindset, it raises concerns about the risks we face both physically and emotionally.

How do you cope when you encounter these scenarios?

As a young property manager in 2004, I faced my first tenant suicide, an experience that still haunts me. Unfortunately, over the next decade of managing rental properties, I encountered five more tenant suicides. During my tenure, I have had tenants confide in me about their struggles for hours, encountered unprovoked aggression, received threats, and witnessed numerous properties occupied by tenants with mental health disorders such as OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

These experiences were never something I anticipated as a residential property manager, and I struggled to find information and guidance to handle such traumatic events. There were no clear-cut processes to follow, and I found little legislative support for residential property managers dealing with these scenarios.

Suicide and dealing with it

One of the most unforgettable incidents during my time as a property manager was encountering a tenant suicide in Brisbane’s inner city. Despite multiple attempts to contact the tenant regarding their rent arrears and checking with neighbours who hadn’t seen him, I assumed that the tenant had deserted the property.

I issued an abandonment notice along with an entry notice and arrived at the property to investigate. As I walked towards the front door, I smelled an unusual odour emanating from the ground floor flat. Based on my previous abandonment experiences, I assumed it was from decaying food that might have been left in the property.

Upon entering the flat, I turned towards my right and saw the tenant lying motionless on the floor with a plastic bag over his head secured with electrical tape. He had multiple cuts on his wrists and was covered in blood. Overcome with shock, I ran out of the flat in tears. The neighbours heard my cries and called the police, who arrived shortly afterwards.

This incident highlights the severity of mental health issues and their potential impact on the property management industry. Every day, we are faced with seemingly unreasonable demands from tenants or owners, and we can’t help but wonder if their behaviour is the result of an unstable mental state. In some cases, this may not be too far from the truth.

The following are concerning statistics from a recent Mindframe Media study that we should all be mindful of in our roles as property managers:

  • One in five Australians will experience a mental illness each year.
  • Mental illnesses are the third most common cause of disability in Australia.
  • Approximately 4% of people will experience a major depressive episode in a 12-month period, with 5% of women and 3% of men affected.
  • About 14% of Australians will be affected by an anxiety disorder in any 12-month period.
  • Around 3% of Australians will be affected by psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, which involves losing touch with reality during illness episodes.
  • The prevalence of mental illness decreases with age, with the highest prevalence among 18-24-year-olds.
  • Women are more likely to seek help for anxiety disorders (18% compared to 11%) and mood disorders (7.1% compared to 5.3%).
  • Only 35% of people with a mental disorder have used a health service, and just 29% have consulted a GP within the 12 months before the survey, according to a national survey.

Whenever I share my “war stories” with colleagues, friends, and superiors, they are always shocked to learn that not only have I experienced such incidents, but many other real estate professionals have as well.

It’s astonishing that our industry does not provide any warnings, training, or widespread discussion about how to deal with such situations. As the statistics indicate, one in five Australians will experience mental illness, and when managing hundreds of tenancies, it is likely that 20% of the tenants could be currently suffering from a mental illness.

So, what can we do? Property managers are not expected to carry such heavy burdens when dealing with people who are struggling with mental health issues. However, we must be aware of the signs, symptoms, and steps to take to protect ourselves and help those who may be at risk to themselves or others within our professional boundaries.

So how do we look after ourselves in the process?

How can we ensure our safety when dealing with tenants who may have mental health issues? Here are some suggestions based on my experience:

  • If you’re concerned about a tenant’s welfare, you can request a welfare check with the local police station. This is a way to seek assistance without putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, and you can remain anonymous.
  • Trust your instincts. If you feel uneasy about a situation or client, never visit a property alone and consider avoiding the property or client altogether.
  • If you notice a strong odour or see blowflies on the inside of windows or doors, this may be a sign that the tenant has passed away. Do not enter the property and call the police immediately.
  • Research local organizations that offer re-homing services, mental health assistance, and emergency relief so that you can provide contact details to clients in need.
  • Visit your local police station to obtain emergency contact numbers for services and police hotlines, including Crime Stoppers.
  • If a client makes threats against you, always report the situation to your business owner and local police, even if you don’t believe the client is a serious threat.
  • Establish a code word in your office that can be used to alert staff members if you’re in danger. Make sure all staff members are aware of the code word and know what to do if it’s used.

It’s crucial to prioritise the safety of not only ourselves but also our colleagues and employees. To keep this topic at the forefront of our team’s minds, I recently conducted comprehensive training covering all the points mentioned above, and I plan to continue doing so. Preparing our staff to handle uncommon situations is always wise, especially when it comes to managing people and property. I strongly encourage other business owners, corporate teams, and team leaders to follow suit and invest in similar training.

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