Neighborhoods and Mental Health by Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel

It is important that we study human behavior and well-being in these contexts and move away from the traditional laboratory research that dominated much of the social sciences a few decades ago. As research into and understanding around mental health grows, particularly beyond the walls of the hospital spaces, environmental psychology plays a key role in developing that work. Neighborhood and mental health studies demonstrate that neighborhoods remain important contexts in our everyday lives and have an independent effect on our well-being. This type of research is particularly relevant for urban design and policy efforts to create healthier neighborhoods.

While there are many contexts that influence us, the neighborhood environment has gained increasing attention in recent years. Psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner (1977) originally suggested that neighborhoods function as an exosystem in his social ecological model but researchers generally agree that neighborhoods should be considered a microsystem since we come into direct contact with it on a daily basis (e.g., Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, & Aber, 1997).

The growing body of literature exploring the effects of neighborhoods as places to live on residents’ health generally finds small but statistical significant effects (e.g., Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Leventhal, & Aber, 1997). For example, living in low socioeconomic (SES) neighborhoods has been linked to mental health problems among adults (e.g., Weich et al., 2002). In research with children, Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn (2000) found in a landmark review that the most consistent finding suggests a positive relationship between affluent neighbors and children’s school readiness and achievement. A less consistent finding suggests an adverse effect of low SES status on mental health; in some studies but not all, children in poor neighborhoods are more likely to report mental health problems.

While the majority of neighborhood research to date is cross-sectional, these types of neighborhood effects can also be found in longitudinal and experimental studies. One of the best known is the Moving to Opportunity study that started in 1994 funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The study randomly moved public housing residents to more affluent neighborhoods in five major cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. Long-term (10-15 years later) findings suggest that moving out of poverty is especially beneficial for young women as it greatly ameliorated their mental health problems. Interestingly, this was not the case for young men. Among adults who moved out of poor neighborhoods, moving out was associated with significantly fewer instances of depression (see the final report here).

The readings from this section primarily draw on literature spanning the fields of psychology, sociology, and public/urban health and epidemiology.

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