Mental health, migration, and megacities

Unwinding the impact of cities on our mental health

Nikolas Rose
Martyn Pearce

Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

24 March 2017

On the new Policy Forum Pod, Nikolas Rose discusses how urbanisation is affecting our mental health, and what policymakers can do to take the stress out of city living.

Do you live in a city? If so, you share something in common with over the half the world’s population. In fact, the United Nations predicts that two-thirds of the world will live in cities by 2050. Policymakers have begun to grapple with the economic and environmental consequences of this wave of urbanisation, but what are the implications for human health and mental wellbeing? On the new Policy Forum Pod, Professor Nikolas Rose discusses the global move from the countryside to the metropolis, and how the problem of stress might require more creative policy for life in the city. Listen here: http://bit.ly/PFPstress

Professor Nikolas Rose is a Professor of Sociology and Head of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London. Trained as a biologist, a psychologist and a sociologist, his work explores how scientific developments have changed conceptions of human identity and governance and what this means for our political, socio-economic and legal futures.

The world is currently facing a number of big demographic shifts, but urbanisation is one in particular which is deserving of attention, Professor Rose explains.

“Something about the urban experience is becoming the typical experience for humans.

“In China, 300 million people have moved from the countryside to the cities in China, over the last 10 or 15 years. That is a huge, mass migration – probably the biggest that we have seen, proportionally, since the urbanisation in the late-19th century.”

Yet despite the volume of people moving into the cities of the world, there is a shortage of knowledge on how urban living is affecting people’s mental health. Anecdotally, we know that cities can be stressful environments to many people. But ‘stress’, as it turns out, is fairly hard to pin down.

“We use stress as a lay term all the time and there is a long history of stress research, but it foundered for a while, because nobody knew what stress was,” says Rose.

“Was being crowded stress? We sometimes want to go out into the big city and be with loads and loads of people and that is not stressful at all. Sometimes, there would be loads of people and it is stressful. Sometimes noise is stressful, sometimes younger people want to go to parties with a lot of noise.”

But although more work is needed to understand the causes of stress for people, it is clear that it is something that is an issue that poses real costs on society, whether it’s in terms of days lost at work, or visits to a doctor, or the use of pharmaceuticals, Rose says.

“There is a real economic cost to these kinds of conditions and, therefore, if there is no other incentive, there is a real economic incentive to begin to understand them and mitigate them.”

This is where stress becomes a matter of public policy.

“The attempt to produce low-stress environments, to put it at its simplest – is, indeed, a public good,” Rose says.

“People who are responsible for urban design, design of public spaces can begin to recognise that public spaces are not just good for trade… they actually are conducive to health.”

And for a planet which might have up to 10 billion people by 2050, with two-thirds of them living and working in cities, what can policymakers do to prepare?

“I think it will require activist governments. I think it will require foresight on the part of governments,” Rose says.

“It requires urban planners to begin to think about the spaces in the city as habitats in which human being live amongst all sorts of other organisms, with noise, with pollution, et cetera, and how they might make these habitats a little bit more conducive to a good life.”

You can catch up with our Policy Forum podcast series here, or via iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud. If you like what you hear, please give us a review on iTunes and help us get the word out.

Nikolas Rose was in conversation with Policy Forum’s Martyn Pearce. To see the Urban Mind app discussed in the podcast, click here. For more on Nikolas Rose’s work, check out his website here.

This episode was produced and written by Nicky Lovegrove. 

Our thanks to Russell Buzby at the ANU Research School of Social Sciences for helping make this podcast happen.

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