Event Review: Stress and the City
• Heidelberg University Association
• German Center for Research and Innovation
On November 2, 2015, the German Center for Research and Innovation together with the Heidelberg University Association hosted a panel discussion in New York City on the correlation between city living and people’s susceptibility to mental health conditions. As one of the many high-rise buildings in Midtown Manhattan, the event’s surroundings offered the perfect scenery for the discussion’s topic: “Stress and the City.”
Introducing the general sentiment of the evening’s talks with rather striking evidence on the subject, German Consul General Brita Wagener welcomed the speakers and audience by quoting findings of a 35 percent higher risk for heart attack in New York City – even among tourists. This statistic set the stage for the research presented by Prof. Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, Director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, and Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Heidelberg University. According to him, city life is basically good in terms of well-being because it provides better access to health care, more economic opportunities, a variety of cultural activities, and is better for the environment. In this sense, people in cities on average live longer and are richer, but there is also a flipside: urban living’s influence on mental health stands out as a clear exception. According to studies that Prof. Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg presented, city dwellers have a 30 to 40 percent higher risk of developing mental illnesses like depression or anxiety disorders than do people living in rural areas. Even more striking is the 300 percent higher likelihood for people born and raised in large cities to suffer from schizophrenia. Prof. Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg’s research actually showed that one particular region of the brain called the amygdala – a danger sensor crucial for the signaling of negative emotions – is wired differently in city people as compared to rural dwellers.
Confronted with these findings, his researchers try to determine which aspects of city life contribute to these problems and what people can do on a practical level to improve their situations. To find out whether these mental health issues emerge from factors such as a lack of green space, feelings of insecurity, large crowds, or loud noises, Prof. Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg and his team conducted a study in Mannheim where they observed study participants with electronic devices in different city environments and measured their stress levels. His main conclusion is that the best way to counteract stress in urban areas – and thus mental health problems – involves building up and maintaining a reliable social network. According to Prof. Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg, city dwellers have a remarkably reduced social network in terms of quality and size compared to that of people in the countryside.
Prof. Andrew Rundle, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, presented a different approach to researching problems associated with city life. Prof. Rundle also referenced the benefits of urban life with regards to lower mortality rates, but summarized his findings on mental health risks by stating, “You’ll live longer as an urbanite, but you might not enjoy the extra time!” The research conducted by Prof. Rundle focuses on epistemological approaches to urban life and therefore concentrates on physical activity as a way to improve health outcomes, including improved mental health. His research group examines how society can better organize and build urban environments to promote physical activity, specifically advocating for the creation of “neighborhood walkability.” Prof. Rundle showed examples of neighborhoods in New York that have high and low walkability. When citing these examples he always referred to the three constitutive elements of density, diversity, and design. To what extent people occupy an urban area in terms of density and to what extent a high mix of land use exists influences the walkability of an area and the likelihood of people to abstain from using a car.
Prof. Rundle and his team gain this knowledge by GPS tracking of the actual movements of New York City residents to discover which parts of their neighborhoods they use the most. Their findings show a high variation of city activity, but a low use of the actual given space and infrastructure of a single person’s surroundings, lower than what his team expected. Prof. Rundle cited influential factors such as crime rates and pedestrian safety, but also aesthetics and urban design. People favor walkable areas much more in their daily routines. In fact, the amount of physical activity per person increased by about 100 minutes per week between people from areas with the lowest walkability and people from areas with the highest walkability. According to Prof. Rundle, the City of New York is making great strides to maintain and increase the amount of urban parkland and green spaces with initiatives like “MillionTreesNYC” and by establishing guidelines for rebuilding neighborhoods to support physical activity, so that architecture and urban planning can be used to promote health and well-being.
A lengthy Q&A with a highly engaged audience then followed. Questions revolved around further suggestions for ways to deal with the risks accompanying city life as well as the role of factors like socioeconomic background, commute time, public transportation, sleep habits, lifestyle, gentrification, the availability of drugs, weather, ethnic mix, and collective traumas like 9/11. Some audience members wanted to know how science is able to measure stress and how researchers take into consideration the potential correlation between different research parameters. Prof. Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg advocated for intensified support for mental health research, which receives less funding than that of other fields, such as research on cancer or cardiovascular diseases. This is the current situation despite the fact that mental health disorders today represent a much larger problem to society on a whole. In fact, they are the main reason that young people drop out of the workforce. The speakers concluded the discussion with an appeal to take these issues seriously, but to nonetheless remain optimistic about the future. They urged audience members to strive to make city life beneficial for all residents to ensure a brighter and more sustainable future for urban residents. A reception in the German House restaurant then followed, with a view from the 23rd floor overlooking a city that is both stressful and rife with opportunity.