During my 13 years in property, 10 of which were spent within property management, I have been one of the unfortunate few who has directly dealt with tenants battling with mental health issues.
As anyone who has ever dealt with mental illness either professionally or personally, we know that these people can be more susceptible to introversion, aggression, anxiety and paranoia amongst other symptoms of this terrible illness. Many people suffering with mental disorders may not carry a support network who check in with them and ensures they are safe and sound.
In accordance with our standard obligations as an agent, we inspect premises on a regular basis (most commonly on our own) and converse with our clients in relation to a magnitude of tenancy-related matters. So when we are dealing with someone who is not necessarily of ‘normal mindset’, where does that leave us in way of risk – both physically and emotionally?
How to cope when you discover a deceased
In 2004, as a young property manager, I experienced my very first tenant-suicide. The experience is yet to leave me and I believe it never will. Over the next 9-10 years of managing properties and rental departments, I was the first to the scene at a further 5 suicides of tenants in properties under management.
Leading up to these traumatic events, I have had tenants sit on the phone for me for hours discussing their troubles, had tenants behave aggressively without being provoked, had my life threatened on more than one occasion and sighted numerous properties occupied by those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia and other health-related conditions that have all had an effect on me during my property management career.
I never thought I would be exposed to these types of scenarios as a residential property manager. Upon dealing with these confronting situations, I found there was very little information available to help and guide me through overcoming each of these events. I found it almost impossible to find black and white processes to follow and very little in the way of residential legislative support.
Suicide and dealing with it
The most memorable case I experienced, was that of a tenant suicide in the inner-city of Brisbane. After trying to contact the tenant numerous times to discuss their rent arrears and checking in with neighbours that had not seen him, I assumed this tenant had abandoned the property.
I proceeded in issuing an abandonment notice along with an entry notice ready to visit the property to investigate. I arrived at the property in accordance with the entry notice and whilst walking up to the front door, smelt a very distinctive odour coming from the ground floor flat.
Having experienced previous abandonments in my career, I assumed the smell was from rotting food that may have been left in the property. As I opened the door, I turned slightly to my right and there was my tenant lifeless on the floor with a plastic bag over his head, secured in place with electrical tape at the base of his neck. He was blood-covered and had large gashes to both wrists. I ran out of the flat, crying hysterically. This alerted neighbours who came out and assisted me by phoning the police.
Obviously, this story reflects a very bad case of my dealings with mental issues. On a daily basis, we often question why ‘that tenant’ or ‘that owner’ is contacting you with the most ridiculous demands that no logical mind can justify. The first thing that comes to mind is that perhaps ‘they are not stable’. Not to be funny, or insensitive, but you may not be too far from the truth.
A recent study published by Mindframe Media outlined the following alarming statistics that we should all be aware of within our positions in property management:
- In each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness
- Mental illnesses are the third leading cause of disability in Australia
- About 4% of people will experience a major depressive episode in a 12-month period, with 5% of women and 3% of men affected
- Approximately 14 % of Australians will be affected by an anxiety disorder in any 12-month period
- About 3% of Australians are affected by psychotic illness; such as schizophrenia, where there is a loss of contact with reality during episodes of illness
- Prevalence of mental illness decreases with age, with prevalence greatest among 18-24-year-olds
- Women are more likely than men to seek help for anxiety disorders (18% compared with 11%) and mood disorders (7.1% compared with 5.3%)
- A national survey showed that only 35% of people with a mental disorder had used a health service and only 29% consulted a GP within the 12 months before the survey
When I discuss these ‘war stories’ with friends, my team, my bosses (as I’ve had more than my fair share), everyone is absolutely astonished at the fact that not only have I experienced this, but many, many other real estate professionals also have.
It amazes me on how many others within our industry have faced similar scenarios and there is no warning of the risk, training on how to deal with these matters nor is it widely spoken about within our network. Based on the statistics above, you can see that one in five Australians will experience mental illness. When managing hundreds of tenancies at any given time, 20% of these people could be currently suffering from a mental illness.
So what do we do? No one would ask or expect Property Managers to take on such heavy burdens in relation to dealing with these types of people, however, we must be aware. We must be aware of the signs, the symptoms and the steps to take to ensure we are not putting ourselves at risk – but also, doing what we can within our professional boundaries to obtain help for those we fear to be at risk to themselves or others.
How do we do this?
Based on my experience, my suggestions are as follows:
- A property manager can always request a welfare check on any tenant at any time with a local police station. If you fear for their general welfare, this is a great way of seeking assistance without physically exposing yourself to an undesirable situation. You can also remain anonymous when making the request.
- If you ever have a ‘bad feeling’ or something just doesn’t feel right, never visit a property alone or avoid the property and/or client altogether. Always follow your instincts as more common than not, they are spot on.
- If you happen to visit a property and see very large blow-flies on the inside of the windows/doors which may be accompanied by a bad smell, never enter. Call police immediately. It may be a sign the tenant has passed away.
- Google organisations in your local area that provide re-homing services, mental health assistance and emergency relief so that you can at any time, offer contact details to any client in need.
- Visit your local police station to obtain emergency contact numbers for services and police hotlines including Crime Stoppers.
- If you ever have threats made against you always record and report the situation with your business owner and your local police – regardless if you feel the client to be harmless.
- Create a code word in your office where this can be text or phoned into the office at any time, alerting any staff member that you are in danger. Ensure any new staff is made aware of this code word and processes of what to do next upon their employment commencement.
We should always be aware of not only our own personal safety but that of our employees and colleagues. I have recently carried out extensive training with our teams on all of the above and will continue to keep this topic at the front of our teams’ minds. It’s always a great idea to train staff on the uncommon, to ensure we are ready for anything when looking after people and property. It would be great to see other business owners, corporate teams and team leaders do the same.
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