The urban strife of inner-city living may have a dangerous effect on the mental development of young children, according to new research that indicates kids living in urban areas of the U.K. are almost twice as likely to suffer a psychotic episode by age 12 than those growing up in the countryside.
Though several previous studies have already identified a strong connection between city life and psychosis, the team behind this latest work set out to go a little deeper and “identify specific features of [urban] neighborhoods that may be especially toxic for children’s mental health.”
In doing so, they discovered that a lack of “social cohesion” and the experience of being the victim of violent crimes tend to be the biggest contributors to the development of psychotic symptoms in youngsters. Interestingly, these factors were found to have no correlation with other, more seemingly obvious causes of stunted mental development, such as poverty, parental abuse and family history of psychosis.
According to study co-author Candice Odgers, “many of the most cohesive neighborhoods in our study were also the most economically deprived,” while the researchers also insist that “low neighborhood-level social cohesion appears to undermine positive parenting practices.”
To conduct the study – which is published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin – the researchers used data from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, which tracks the development of a nationally-representative cohort of 2,232 British twin children. When the children reached five years of age, their mothers were asked a series of questions designed to gauge levels of “social cohesion,” “social control,” and “neighborhood disorder”. They were also asked about any violent crimes that their family may have been the victim of.
At 12 years old, the children themselves were interviewed in order to determine whether or not they exhibited any symptoms of psychosis. These symptoms do not include things like anxiety or depression, which are characteristic of overall mental illness, but related specifically to hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.
Poor social cohesion and crime victimization are the biggest contributors to childhood psychosis. Eakachai Leesin/Shutterstock
At the same time, the children’s neighbors were asked a series of questions about their local area, again focusing on the three key characteristics that the kids’ mothers had previously been interviewed about.
The first major finding thrown up by the study was that, by the age of 12, 7.4 percent of children living in urban areas had experienced psychotic symptoms, compared to 4.4 percent of those in rural regions – an increase of roughly 80 percent.
When seeking the causes of this effect, the study authors found that “low social cohesion, together with crime victimization in the neighborhood explained nearly a quarter of the association between urbanicity and childhood psychotic symptoms after considering family-level confounders.”
These results are particularly alarming given the fact that two-thirds of the world’s population are expected to live in cities by 2050. On a positive note, however, study co-author Helen Fisher insists that “just because a child experiences a psychotic symptom does not mean he or she will develop full-blown mental health disorders,” adding that “many children grow out of them, but these unusual early experiences can lead to a range of problems later.”