While the Gladstone Hotel seems an unlikely setting for a symposium on mental health and neighbourhoods, the Queen West staple recently served just that purpose. With pitchers circulating amongst the sardine-packed crowd and a panel of distinguished experts at the head of the room, this Tuesday night dubbed “Science On Tap” was far from the average auditorium talk.

“We have a social epidemiologist, a human geographer, a psychiatrist—and I’m a philosopher,” said discussion moderator and U of T professor Mark Kingwell. “With the four of us together, we can solve any problem.”

Bold words, considering the issue at hand: an attempt to answer how the neighbourhoods we live in shape the way we feel and think.

In this year’s first instalment of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health’s (CRICH) Café Scientifique series, the discussion addressed the issue of why neighbourhoods matter for our mental well-being. Panellists Patricia O’Campo, a social epidemiologist, Jim Dunn, a human geographer, and psychiatrist Kwame McKenzie discussed the current research concerning the topic. Drawing from multiple disciplines, the dialogue encompassed issues of affordable housing, health equity, social justice, and the question of how to measure the links between mental health and neighbourhoods.

But what do we mean by the term neighbourhood? According to Dunn, neighbourhoods are, in the practical sense, defined by physical boundaries used in statistical population sampling. They also include a social dimension, the primary focus of current research. Social definitions of neighbourhood include elements of community, cohesiveness, and proximity to services.

“It’s a state of mind,” said McKenzie, whose research explores the effects of diversity on mental well being. “Things that cause you stress in your neighbourhood are bad for your mental health.”

According to O’Campo, who specializes in urban ecosystems and the societal causes of disease, additional factors between neighbourhoods and mental health include noise level, crime, traffic, green space, and neighbour interaction.

On top of these factors, Dunn emphasized that the way your neighbourhood aligns with your identity is crucial for your mental health. Positive mental health is associated with a certain level of stability in the sense of who you are.

This is important to consider when analysing the effects of immigration and cultural diversity on neighbourhoods. According to McKenzie, if you’re a member of a visible minority in a neighbourhood with little diversity, you’re at a higher risk of developing a mental illness.

With factors ranging from cultural diversity to traffic volume, it comes as no surprise that studying neighbourhoods and mental health has proven difficult. Research in the past decade has focused on the rediscovery of geographical space as a key factor in psychological well-being.

Looking back at some of the housing disasters that plagued mid-century modern architecture, researchers recognize the important connections between the space we live in and our degree of mental health. The concept of vertical slum pathologies has emphasized the link between the poor design of physical space and detrimental social and mental states. In fact, statistics show that residents on higher floors in apartment buildings are at a greater risk of mental illness. In contrast, greater contact with nature has proven to be beneficial. Studies in environmental psychology have shown that even nature videos of can produce positive physiological response.

These findings are at the forefront of efforts to introduce better planning, design, and green space into cities like Toronto. What’s more, studies regarding ethnic diversity and its impact on community cohesion are proving to be very significant to large cities with multicultural markets. According to Dunn, “the lessons we learn in Toronto are lessons we can export to other world capitals.” With any luck, these lessons will be coming soon to a neighbourhood near you.

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