Study links neighbourhoods to adolescent mental health and behaviour outcomes

Posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New research from the University of Ottawa has found that a community's degree of social cohesion, or neighbourliness, may have long-term effects on adolescent mental health and social behaviours.

The study, published in Psychological Medicine this week, examined the patterns of social cohesion in the neighbourhoods of 5,577 children who were followed from toddlerhood to adolescence. Using data from Statistics Canada's National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, researchers linked these patterns to several behavioural and mental health outcomes occurring in early adolescence, 12 to 15 years of age.

The findings indicated that those living in highly cohesive neighbourhoods—those providing social support and a sense of community among residents—in early childhood were more likely as adolescents to engage in “pro-social” behaviour, or behaviors that benefit others or society in general, such as helping, sharing and volunteering.

Alternatively, children living in low-cohesion neighbourhoods throughout their childhood experienced increased anxious and depressive symptoms and hyperactivity in their adolescence. Declining neighbourhood cohesion was associated with greater hyperactivity, whereas improvements in neighbourhood cohesion was associated with reduced hyperactivity and social aggression.

“Previous studies have shown that a neighbourhood's environment can affect a person's health and well-being, including their mental health,” says Dr. Ian Colman, associate professor with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. “Living in an unsafe or unstable community can have adverse health outcomes such as depression, anxiety and substance use.”

The study's results suggest that efforts to improve social cohesion in communities may have a positive impact on child and adolescent mental health and behaviour. “Higher social cohesion may increase a child's level of interaction with trusted adults in the community as well as with other neighbourhood children, which may contribute to healthy social and emotional development,” says Dr. Mila Kingsbury, a psychologist and senior research associate at the University of Ottawa.

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