A group of urban and psychology researchers carried out a field study in the UK to assess how mental disturbance is related to city life and published their methods and findings in Schizophrenia Bulletin. The researchers used participants from the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study (E-risk), a nationally-representative study of 2,232 British twins, and interviewed them about adolescent psychotic experiences at age 18. Using geocoded census data, the researchers measured “urbanicity,” the impact of living in urban areas at a given time, neighborhood characteristics and personal victimization by violent crime during childhood and adolescence. The researchers also used surveys of over 5,000 direct neighbors of the E-Risk participants as well as interviews with the participants themselves.

According to a 2015 study by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), Londoners suffer the most from mental illnesses, followed by those in the northwest of the UK. Meanwhile, some areas in the south of England were found to have much lower rates of mental illness – with just 0.5% of the population being registered with severe mental illness. “Our challenge now is to consider how we can better understand and tackle the underlying causes. This is not a straightforward task, but exploring the data that lies behind these variations will be an important starting point,” Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said in response to the 2015 study.

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Nathan Anderson.

After analyzing the surveys and extracting statistics from the data provided, the study found that young adults raised in a city were significantly more likely to experience or have experienced psychotic disturbances than their rural counterparts. This association remained significant even after considering potential causes and origins of the mental illness, including family socioeconomic status, family psychiatric history, and adolescent substance abuse problems, but became insignificant after considering the less-than-ideal social conditions of living in a city – such as low social cohesion and struggles of living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The relationship between living in bad neighborhoods and personal crime victimization with mental disturbances experienced by young adults was substantially greater than the latter’s relationship with exposure alone, highlighting a potential correlation between neighborhood conditions and crime victimization.

In other words, in comparison with rural and provincial settings, cities have higher rates of violent crime, tend to be more threatening and are less socially cohesive. Additionally, young adults aged between 16 and 24 in the United Kingdom are three times more likely than other age groups to be victimized by a violent crime. Therefore, many young adults raised in cities are not only immersed in more difficult neighborhoods than their counterparts in less populated towns, but are also more susceptible to fall victim to crime compared to others living in rural neighborhoods – feeding into poor mental health conditions and paranoia, among other disorders.

The cumulative effects of adverse neighborhood social conditions and personal victimization by violent crime during upbringing partly explain why young adults in urban settings are more likely to report mental disorders and illnesses. The study suggests that early intervention efforts targeting victimized youth living in urban settings and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods should be planned in order to treat mental illnesses and disorders before they escalate to psychosis.