Two Iowa State University researchers have opined that bad neighbourhoods can have a depressing effect on residents' health.
Daniel Russell, an Iowa State professor of human development and family studies; and Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chair of psychology, presented their study, which summarised data taken from the Family and Community Health Study (FACHS), an ongoing ISU study of 800 African American families-approximately half living in Iowa and half in Georgia-that started in 1997.
Russell and Cutrona reported that negative neighbourhood infrastructure could keep neighbours from forming social ties.
And it is the absence of those social ties that have a small but significant impact on an individual's mental health.
"If you're living in neighbourhoods where there's a lot of crime, gang activities and so forth, you see weaker social ties. One of the things we tried to assess was essentially community support-to what extent people in that neighbourhood turned to others for child care, other forms of assistance-and whether they socialize and know each other. And it's clear that in these negative neighbourhoods there's this inverse relationship in terms of their various problems and lack of strong ties," said Russell, a noted loneliness researcher.
In neighbourhoods where social disorder-or a lack of social ties-was perceived to be high, the effects on the subjects' perceived personal risk were amplified. The effects of personal risk were muted in neighbourhoods with low social disorder.
"The effects of things going wrong in your own life are magnified when you live in one of these negative neighbourhoods. So it affects all of us to have a sick family member, or lose our job, or to be robbed. But when that happens to someone in these neighbourhoods, it increases the probability that the person will be diagnosed with a major depressive disorder over the next two years. Yet if the same event happened and you were in a more benign neighbourhood, your chances of becoming clinically depressed were less," said Cutrona.
Sixty-two percent of the study's participants subsequently moved to different neighbourhoods between 1997 and 2005, with the rate of moving from specific neighbourhoods ranging from 22 to 90 percent.
"Neighbourhood cohesion" was identified by subjects as the most desirable characteristic of their new neighbourhoods. And people who lived in cohesive neighbourhoods were much less likely to move away.
But the ISU researchers found that the lack of racism was the only factor that significantly improved depression among the African American subjects after they moved.
"If the new neighbourhood was less racist overall-not just their perception, but the perception of multiple people who lived in that neighbourhood-then the subjects' moods improved following that move. So it was not about moving to a wealthier neighbourhood, or even a safer neighbourhood, but moving to a less racist neighbourhood that impacted depression levels," said Cutrona.
The researchers emphasize that the study's sample does not solely reflect perceptions of low income families.
Only about 20 percent of the families surveyed were below the poverty line and the sample included a wide range of family incomes, including some families that earned more than 200,000 dollars per year.
However, both Cutrona and Russell agree that it is the low-income subjects living in negative neighbourhoods who are most vulnerable to prolonged depression.
"If you have to live in one of these neighbourhoods, you may not have the resources for health insurance and good mental health care. And you may not have the support around you to say, 'This is depression and it's treatable,'" said Cutrona.
The study was presented at the World Conference on Stress and Anxiety Research in Galway, Ireland.