University of Washington study finds cities must prioritize youth mental health

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Researchers at the University of Washington conducted an international survey that found cities need to focus on youth mental health as younger generations flock to urban areas.

Starting in April 2020, researchers worked with the nonprofit citiesRISE to survey over 500 people in 53 countries — finding a global shift towards city living among younger people and offering suggestions for making cities safer and more welcoming for younger generations.

According to their findings, published Feb. 21 in the journal Nature, young adults need to be involved in city planning to help boost their mental health and trajectories as adults.

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“One of the most important points in the paper is we have to give young people a voice,” said Jürgen Unützer, chair of the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

The researchers highlighted the need to focus on youth mental health as UNICEF predicts more than 70% of the world’s children will live in cities by 2050 — noting urban areas will be a magnet for people 25 years old and younger for work, education, and housing.

Even though cities can offer more opportunities for work and education, researchers point out rapid urbanization can have a negative impact on mental health for children, adolescents, and young adults by deepening disparities.

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According to the study, several factors contribute to poor mental health — including rising levels of inequality, violence, stressful racial or ethnic dynamics, exposure to environmental toxins, and a lack of green space in urban areas.

These factors also disproportionately affect marginalized groups, researchers said.

According to the study, urban living can increase the risk of psychosis, anxiety disorders, and depression.

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The survey notes that adolescence and young adulthood are critical times for mental health disorders to develop.

An estimated half of mental disorders evident before age 65 start during adolescence, researchers said — noting that 75% of mental health disorders are evident by age 24.

According to Unützer, this research is both a call to action and a starting point for cities to discuss how to better serve younger generations — noting there is not a one-size-fits-all approach for all cities.

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“This population shift is a big, big change. The people who make decisions about how cities spend their money, how they do things? None of them are young. They’re all older people, right? So, we have this huge disconnect between who lives there and who is deciding what we’ll be doing with the resources in our cities,” Unützer added.

Tessa Concepcion, a University of Washington graduate student, added: “Cities have a lot of opportunity to be extremely mental health-friendly, but they also have a lot of characteristics that we know is detrimental to mental health such as a lack of green and blue space – so, a lack of parks and a lack of access to water and greenery.”

Researchers say the key is to include younger generations in city planning.

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“We found that one of the most frequently endorsed characteristics from youth in this survey was that youth needed to be included in leadership positions,” Concepcion explained. “So, it’s very reaffirming that the adolescents themselves stated they need to be in positions of power when it comes to their mental health.”

“Our study participants highlighted the importance of supporting and promoting healthy social connection for young people, and they underscored the value of reducing inequalities in urban environments. Whatever action cities take, young people need to be centrally involved,” said Pamela Collins, who conducted most of the research while at UW, and now chairs the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The researchers explained it will take partnerships between cities, and national governments — with help from younger generations — to plan more welcoming cities for younger generations.

“There are themes that come across, however,” Unützer said. “A space that’s safe — that’s huge. Everybody said that. Whether it was rich or poor, they said, ‘We need a space where we can hang out.’ So anybody who is doing city planning could consider where is the safe space. Where can people go and feel like they don’t have to worry about things here in Seattle or Tacoma? And how would that be different for a city like Lagos, Nigeria?”

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