Urban Mental Health

Social scientists have long been interested in urban mental health, particularly the impact of the urban living environment and social adversity on mental health in contexts where people are more likely to encounter demographic diversity. Members of SUPHI utilise interdisciplinary methodologies across urban sociology, anthropology, social epidemiology and geography to establish new knowledge and methodologies to better understand the social and environmental determinants and consequences of poor mental health and wellbeing over the life course.

Public mental health, particularly in global cities where there are growing numbers of people moving into urban environments, continues to require attention. Social and health policy change, changes in the distribution of economic resources and concomitant effects on the availability of social services highlights the importance of ‘thinking locally’ when it comes to urban mental health. Further, demographic changes resulting from shifting migration patterns to cities, alongside new pressures and demands on the built environment all contribute to how we experience and understand mental health. Indeed, social scientists working in biomedical collaborations like the Urban Brain Lab  are beginning to foster a space for interdisciplinary approaches to how we understand the effects and process of city living at the level of the brain itself.

The impact of persistent, disabling and common mental disorders is most profound and costly in highly populated, urban communities. In response, social science researchers have focused on identifying and better understanding how social issues, such as homelessness and illicit drug use, contribute to poor mental health, as well as generate and perpetuate inequities in mental health and service use. Indeed, how particular social groups become and experience ‘minority status’ (and thereby a loss of status) through processes such as migration and social exclusion highlights the acute and chronic social stressors that elicit psychological and physiological responses that in turn influence mental health. These can only be addressed through an understanding that these experiences are shaped by structural factors (e.g., social ideologies, institutions and policies), individual social position, demographic characteristics and geographic context.

Local urban data from studies like the South East London Community Health (SELCoH) study  are also increasingly used to identify ‘high risk groups’ that could benefit from services and for clarifying the adequacy of existing services. The SELCoH study highlights the nature and complexity of how multiple exposures are experienced and accumulate over time, including: exposure to poverty, violence, substance misuse, social isolation, neighbourhood disorder and pollution.  At the core of our efforts to develop strategies to understand and address mental health related issues, is ongoing and embedded service user involvement and public engagement. This is particularly important given that poor mental health may or may not lead to help seeking and service use. Some members of SUPHI work within the Health Inequalities Research Network (HERON) to provide projects and forums for community members, service users, health practitioners, students and researchers to engage and promote participatory research and public engagement. Public and service user engagement ensures that we are asking questions and addressing issues that are priorities to those most impacted. This work can then be further translated into both local and national mental health policy .