Mental health involves our basic working and social abilities. Good mental health enables us to sympathize, recognize, express and regulate our emotions, meet challenges and enjoy life. The World Health Organization (2017) defines mental health as: “Everyone can realize their potential happiness, cope with normal pressures in life, work productively, and be able to serve her or his community. “This definition is related to urban designers, because it also reflects the development of a city.
Mental health is essential for building resilient and sustainable cities. Good mental health can improve people’s life experience, coping ability, education, work, housing and economic potential. It can also help reduce physical problems, reduce medical and social care costs, build social capital and reduce suicide.
Image 1: Repressed urban life. Source: MORTGAGE
There are three reasons why people may increase their mental health problems in cities
Existing risk factors: Many people move to cities to seek better life, work and social opportunities, and distance from past negative experiences. But their reasons may be precisely the risk factors of mental health problems: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, physical and mental health problems, family trauma and so on. This social bias leads to a group of people who are particularly vulnerable to mental disorders.
Social factors: People with inherent risk factors, especially those with poverty or existing mental health problems, often encounter unfair treatment in new cities. This may involve physical and psychological isolation. These communities may be characterized by poverty and social challenges, feelings of injustice and despair, and experiences of prejudice and discrimination that may affect mental health. Low social cohesion and victims of crime are found to increase the risk of childhood psychosis (Litman, 2016).
Environmental factors: People living in cities may experience worse levels of stimulation: density, crowding, noise, odor, scenery, chaos, pollution. Every part of the urban environment is carefully designed to express meaning and information. These stimuli trigger actions and think about potential levels of consciousness, and become more effective because they cannot “cope” with settings. These stimuli may have overload effects: increasing physical burden and stress, but also driving people to seek relief: quiet, private space; over time, this impulse may evolve into social isolation related to depression and anxiety, and also form the basis of the ecological hypothesis of schizophrenia. In addition, people living in cities may find that compared with rural areas, they have less exposure to nature, less opportunities for daily exercise and less leisure time. Because work and time spent around the city have increased. Because of crowding, light, noise and stress, people may find themselves feeling unsafe, less privacy and less sleep. Migrants from rural to urban areas often see people leaving behind their powerful social networks of friends and families, and it takes time to develop similar supportive social capital in cities. This is especially true because, for security reasons, urban residents may be reluctant to engage in social interaction to avoid over-stimulation, or because the likelihood of future relationships with everyone they encounter decreases (Clark, Myron, Stansfeld, Candy, 2006). With the erosion of these protective factors, people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
Image 2: Harsh urban street environment. Source: NEW YORK POST
For urban planning, it is necessary to consider people’s mental health. Good urban design can make people get a healthy psychological environment, and good mental health can make the city more sustainable.
Clark C, Myron R, Stansfeld S, Candy B (2006). A systematic review on the effect of the built and physical environment on mental health. Journal of Public Mental Health 6;2:14-2.
Litman T (2016). Urban Sanity: Understanding Urban Mental Health Impacts and How to Create Saner, Happier Cities. Victoria Transport Institute.
World Health Organization. 1 July 2017. “Dr Tedros takes office as WHO Director-General”.