Research suggests that where we live can affect our mental health but Dr Marco Helbich, an urban geographer at Utrecht University, believes these studies only offer a limited snapshot of our lives. Using a smartphone app and register data, he is tracking people through their daily routines and their residential history to see whether mental health is affected by where we live, work and socialise. His findings could change how we design our cities.
What do we already know about how the natural and built environment affects rates of depression and suicide?
‘Depression and suicide are influenced by several determinants – a person’s sex, age, lifestyle habits and life events can help to either increase or mitigate the risk. Tentative links between suicide mortality and sunshine, green space, lithium in drinking water, and air pollution have been reported.’
What about the influence of the built environment – is there an urban-rural divide?
‘Researchers have found that the risk of depression and committing suicide varies between cities and the countryside. But the reality is more complex than such an urban-rural divide because the environment varies locally.
‘Our team has shown that living near parks and forests – known as ‘green spaces’– reduces antidepressant prescription rates and your risk of suicide. Most of this – including our own study – is based on aggregate data at a single moment in time. This just gives us a snapshot.
‘What we need now is a detailed study of environmental exposure measures, ideally on an individual level, looking at where, when and for how long people were exposed.’