There are a growing number of research papers which make the link between urban living and mental health challenges. Fast-paced media outlets often summarize that cities make us unhappy, but the reality is often more complicated. In this blog post, we explore ‘urban mind’ as well as what steps city dwellers can take to stay calm.
In 2011, a team of German researchers published a paper in Nature which aimed to test the theory that mental health issues such as schizophrenia, anxiety and mood disorders, are generally more common in people who live in or grow up in cities.
The researchers exposed volunteers to negative verbal messages and asked them to complete puzzles while having their brains scanned. The study found that city dwellers had greater activity in certain areas of the brain involved in negative mood and stress.
Health organisations such as the UK’s National Health Service were quick to point out that the study did not assess the participants’ happiness or general stress levels, that the brain activity seen does not necessarily equate to a higher risk of mental illness, and that negative messages used do not necessarily represent real-life situations.
However, it sparked discussion around the issue and led to a number of further studies.
In 2016, researchers in the UK published a study called Why Are Children in Urban Neighborhoods at Increased Risk for Psychotic Symptoms? The research involved 2,232 twin children. They used neighborhood surveys to determine whether twins lived in urban or rural environments at the age of five and then later at the age of 12.
A review of the study by Scientific American states:
“Their analysis revealed that growing up in the city nearly doubled the likelihood of psychotic symptoms at age 12, and that exposure to crime along with low social cohesion (that is, a lack of closeness and supportiveness between neighbors) were the biggest risk factors.”
Although the study concluded that these psychotic symptoms would not necessarily develop into conditions such as schizophrenia as adults, one of the leaders of the study said that “In some of the other studies where we follow people later in life, we show that [psychotic symptoms] are actually related to lots of other [mental health] problems as well, so it's a broader marker for that.”
But it’s not the case that cities always cause mental health issues. Sometimes it’s the opposite.
Layla McCay, the Director of Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health summaries the main reasons thought to be behind the imbalance:
Pre-existing risk factors
Many vulnerable people who have an elevated risk of having mental health problems tend to gravitate to the city. For example, those with financial problems may move in search of housing, employment or other economic opportunities
Secondly, people who do have these pre-existing risk factors often encounter enormous disparities in the city. This can lead to physical and psychological segregation in the city, affecting people’s self-esteem, feelings of belonging and mental health.
Thirdly, the city can provide overwhelming stimuli. The density, crowding, noise, smells, sights, disarray, pollution and intensity of other factors may combine to make people feel overloaded. This can have the result of increasing stress, it can also encourage people to retreat into their private spaces and reject the social connections that can promote good mental health.
Loss of protective factors
The city strips its citizens of the protective factors that help people maintain good mental health. City living can decrease access to nature, reduce regular exercise, and separate people who move to the city from their social networks of friends and family without building new, strong networks.
What can be done?
Regardless of the cause, there is a general acceptance that those living in urban environments are more likely to experience the everyday challenges of mental health issues. As such, there’s a growing movement to address this.
Organisations like the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health seek to change urban design conventions but there are things that we can do as citizens.
One recent study in the UK showed that neighborhoods lined with trees, gardens, and flowering plants can be a green “pill” for mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
The study also found that effects of greenery had a stronger protective effect for women, people aged under 60 and people living in poorer neighbourhoods.
A new citizen science project called Urban Mind is building on this research. Anyone can download their app and respond to questions about how they feel and the environment around them at that moment. Users get a summary of their answers, and the team say the data will be used to help plan and design healthier cities.
While we can’t do much as individuals to change our environment, we can try and make time to enjoy the nature we already have on our doorsteps.