Stress and the City

Gabrielle Bex explores the correlation between poor mental health and city life

My hometown isn’t exactly tiny. Located just off the M25, High Wycombe is a popular commuter town, now roughly as famous for producing James Corden (so sorry) as it once was for its thriving chair-making industry. There’s a chair museum instead now, and it’s an absolute must for culture vultures- certified by one TripAdvisor user as being ‘the most boring thing you can do in this world.’ So yeah, it’s a bit dull, but then whose hometown isn’t?

Wycombe isn’t tiny though, honest. Even Google says so, apparently it’s a ‘large town’ with a population of 124,475. Nonetheless, it manages to encapsulate that parochial Small Town™ aesthetic, at least as far as I’m concerned. What’s more, my experience as an undergrad was even more pronounced. Winchester, although technically a city, has a population of only 45,184. Perched on the edge of the South Downs, it’s beautiful but remote.

I loved my time there but, in retrospect, it did little to prepare me for life in a big city – I’m pretty sure there are more shops on Byres Road than in the whole of Hampshire put together. And I love that, I really do. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s a brave new world that I’m itching to explore.

It’s just that I sometimes wonder whether I’m brave enough to face that new world. At times it feels like I’m itching with anxiety rather than excitement, every inch of me acutely aware that, yes, there are cars everywhere and, yes, I’ve been stood here waiting to cross for about a decade.

After all, Glasgow is the fourth biggest city in the UK. That’s a statistic the University seems keen to promote, and rightly so. It’s an electric place to live, with an energy that radiates from the brickwork and permeates into every single resident. Without a doubt, it’s true what they say – people really do make Glasgow.

On the other hand, I find that the sheer number of people can get more than a bit overwhelming. I’m used to encountering maybe thirty-forty people a day tops, plus the occasional sheep, and so the constant bustle of city living can, on a bad day, really play havoc with my mental health.  

I’m not alone in feeling this way either; many people find life in the city to be taxing. At the end of the day, city dwellers do often face higher rates of crime, pollution, social isolation and other environmental stressors than those living in rural areas. Indeed, taking these factors into account, it may come as no surprise that the findings of a group of Dutch researchers led by Dr Jaap Peen suggest that urban living raises the risk of anxiety disorders by 29% and mood disorders by 39%.

These statistics however have helped to bring about considerable change in the scientific community. It is, for instance, no longer simply assumed that those at risk of mental illness are more likely to move to cities, a theory dubbed the ‘social drift’ hypothesis. Instead, cities themselves are now widely viewed as the cause of poor mental health and much is currently being written on certain urban areas, such as Southwyck House, a social housing project in South London which has significantly higher levels of psychosis than the national average.

But why then does it seem as though the larger the settlement you live in, the more likely you are to become mentally ill? Well, a recent study by German researcher and clinician, Dr Mazda Adli, asked just that. Adli believes the answer lies within the urban paradox of feeling lonely in a crowd. He writes that ‘if social density and social isolation occur at the same time and hit high-risk individuals, then city-stress related mental illness can often be the consequence.’ Adli concludes his research with the assertion that our brains are not perfectly shaped for living in urban environments.  

Having said that, it is important to remember that stress is only a small part of the impact that cities have on our brains. There are also plenty of advantages to living in an urban area, as cities offer, on the whole, better healthcare, better education, and a better standard of living than their rural counterparts. Nonetheless, it is worrying to read in a report from the UN, that the proportion of the world’s population living in cities and megacities is set to rise from 54% in 2014 to 66% by 2050. Many of these people will move in search of a better life and, I’m sure, a great many will find one. It is vital, however, that there are systems in place to ensure that those at risk of mental illness are given the care, support and respect they deserve, and that research into the cause of urban psychosis is properly funded.

[Gabrielle Bex – @GabrielleBex]

Image credit: Aike Jansen 

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following links that may be helpful:

The University’s Disability Service provides support for all students with a disability or long-term health condition, including mental illness.

The University’s Counselling and Psychological Service runs drop-in counselling appointments, as well as short-term blocks of psychological support.

Queen Margaret Union’s in-house mental health awareness campaign, linking students with services across campus and Glasgow.

A UK-wide support line you can call if you are feeling low or anxious, or are struggling to cope. Lines are open 24/7, or can be contacted by email.

A Scottish support line you can call if you are feeling low or anxious, or struggling to cope. Lines are open weekday evenings and non-stop from Friday evening until Monday morning.

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