No doubt you heard expatriates describe their lives in cities like New York or London as “crazy busy”. Perhaps you find your own life in Dar es Salaam or Nairobi increasingly hectic as well. Big cities are marred by overcrowding and a level of frantic activity which, according to health experts, takes a toll on our physical and psychological well-being.
We associate metropolises with valuable opportunities: education, employment, entertainment, easy access to goods and services. However, the pace of life in large cities, the noise level, traffic congestion, air pollution and overcrowding are causing stress, and this affects our health. Therefore, as it is estimated that by 2050, approximately two thirds of the global population will live in cities, the correlation between urbanisation and populations’ mental health issues is gaining attention.
Regardless of the location of the growing mega-cities we increasingly call home, scientists warn that the stressors big cities entail can make us sick. A group of researchers from the Netherlands found that living in urban environments raises the risk of developing mental illnesses. For example, the risk of depression is around 40 per cent higher in cities, the risk of anxiety disorders around 20 per cent, compared to the rural population.
Psychiatrist Dr Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg and researchers at the German Central Institute of Mental Health reached similar conclusions. The team found that the brains of people residing in cities – and especially the brains of those who also grew up in cities – were more vulnerable to common daily stress factors. The bigger the city and the more time someone has spent in the city as a child, the higher their risk of developing a mental illness.
According to German academic psychiatrist Dr. Mazda Adli, some major psychiatric diseases are more prevalent in cities because the human brain is simply not suited to busy urban environments. As more children are raised in cities now, it is of interest to parents how their stressful environmental conditions impact the developing brains of children, causing higher stress vulnerability and proneness to depression in adulthood.
For humans, like for other species, overcrowding leads to stress and illness. Dr Adli describes city-specific social stress as the combination of social density and social isolation, which many residents in large cities endure. Social isolation, the typical urban experience of loneliness in crowds, he explains, is even associated with higher levels of mortality.
If we accept Dr Adli’s supposition that urbanisation thus could have a similar impact on the health of the global population as climate change, it is not surprising that there is a New York psychiatrist who even writes an “urban survival” blog.
As city living combines with genetic, psychological and social risk factors to create higher rates of depression and anxiety, what can we do to combat this serious health challenge of the 21st century? Urban planners are now studying city-stress, but few countries have the financial means to deliberately shape urban environments with the population’s health in mind.
As ordinary citizens, we may not be able to control the overcrowding on DART buses or the stop-and-go traffic on Morogoro Road during peak hours, but being aware of the impact of urban stressors - especially on the developing brains of our children - we can reduce their and our own stress vulnerability. A sense of familiarity with our environment, a sense of connectedness with our neighbours, scientists tell us, promote our stress resilience.
We can seek quiet time away from the crowds and take that overdue trip to visit our rural relatives. We can combat “loneliness in crowds” by taking out our ear plugs and having a chat with a stranger on the bus. We can reach out to isolated city dwellers in our apartment building. As research confirms that giving makes us happy, we can kill two birds with one stone by including an isolated neighbour in social gatherings. Why wouldn’t we?