The environments in which people live, grow and work affect their mental health.
Ecological inequality risk factors that increase the possibility for mental health challenges includes a shortage of suitable housing and transport choices, community deprivation, a harmful environment, living in an inner-city environment, or living in rural areas without infrastructure. Similarly, a good living or working environment can bring many positive benefits to mental health.
Documented evidence points to the positive effects of “green” areas on mental health and stress like spending time in a park or including plants in indoor décor. Likewise, transitioning from homelessness to housing, or experiencing housing improvements like moving to a larger or more suitable house, has been shown to improve mental health.
The Mental Health Foundation continues to highlight the importance of a safe, secure and suitable home or housing facility for mental wellbeing. Experience of being homeless or the risk of losing a house is strongly associated with mental health challenges and can adversely add to an existing mental health condition. According to studies 80% of homeless people reported that they were battling mental health problems, with 45% having been diagnosed with a mental health problem by a health professional.
The quality of the home situation is also significant. Poor-quality housing or housing that is unsafe or makes on feel vulnerable, is a contributing risk factor for mental health problems and may exacerbate existing mental health problems.
Social division and unrest in communities, as well as elevated levels of neighbourhood challenges, influence health outcomes separate of socioeconomic status. Young people who experience fewer positive and greater negative social relations have been found to have lower well-being, but that social unity and interaction may actually reduce the negative effects of neighbourhood deprivation on mental health.
A person’s living environment can also reinforce seclusion and marginalization despite socioeconomic status. People with learning disabilities, racially divided schools, and activities, living separated to the general community, and lack of community connections makes one vulnerable to hate crime and discrimination, leading, in turn, to an increased risk of mental health problems. Elderly individuals living by themselves and adults living in an inner-city or urban environment are known to be at risk for depression and anxiety.
Development of inner-city areas for homes and urban living have been linked to mental health stressors such as concentrated socioeconomic deprivation, less community support and social separation as well as added physical environment stressors such as air, water and noise pollution and exposure to physical violence and accidents.
The lack of open areas can prevent community organisation from developing, which is required to encourage social connections and decrease isolation. According to a student study, the most important aspects that negatively affect happiness and health were noise from neighbours, a feeling of overcrowding in the home, shortage of “breakaway” resources such as parks and community facilities, and the fear of crime.
The Mental Health Foundation’s report Poverty and Mental Health reported that the impact of the developed building environment is evident across the life course. School-age children’s attitudes and behaviours is directly affected by the quality of their environment and local neighbourhoods, and they found that usually the poor physical condition of neighbourhoods adversely affects the schools. The absence of safe outdoor play areas has been found to be a contributing factor in increased mental health problems among children and young people.
Personal and community distress in the wake of a natural disaster is a typical response and is usually temporary but for some it may lead to or trigger a mental health problem. NATO has established a model that shows it can take up to three years for a community to adjust to its new environment following a natural disaster with local, national and international aid and even longer if there is no external support or resources.
On the positive side, spending time in safe, natural surroundings reduces levels of stress and/or improves attention fatigue and mood. Recently, strong evidence was found for a positive association between the quantity of green space (nature and plants) and perceived mental health. Evidence also supports an association between availability of blue space (natural water like rivers, dams or oceans) and good mental health.
There are numerous documented examples of very strong community feelings in disadvantaged ecological areas and similarly that sometimes individuals in the upper socioeconomic spectrum feel more lonely than someone in underprivileged circumstances.
As with all the other inequalities there are exceptions to the rule but in general and according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a person’s mental well-being is firstly impacted by their immediate environment (shelter, food, clothing, income) and then by their need to belong, feel loved and be successful in life.
We all have a role to play in promoting change, by being active members in our communities, expressing the desire to have strong and safe neighbourhoods, and building and maintaining relationships with our friends and families, we can all contribute to reducing the impact of social and economic inequalities.
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