Why Should Smart Cities Put Mental Health Ahead Of All Factors?

Mental Health Initiatives For Urban Living

Already, over half of the global population lives in cities. The number is estimated to increase to 68% by 2050. One of the biggest reasons for people moving to cities is the facilities and opportunities to grow. However, the way smart cities are developing almost seems like only a robotic mind could survive. 

Until now, it has been investigated that urban living has a detrimental effect on physical health. The cases of respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease are increasing. But more recently, it has been recognised that urban living can be harmful to mental health. 

Among all, the risk of developing depression is the most prevalent mental disorder in the world. This comes with a low mood and feeling of helplessness. Studies show that the number of urban dwellers facing this problem is 20% higher compared to living outside a city. Another one is the risk of developing psychosis which is found to be 77% higher compared to rural dwellers. Similarly, the risk of developing generalised anxiety disorder is also 21% higher. 

What comes as more of grave concern is the number of suicides. Every 40 second, there occurs a death by suicide. This is the second leading cause of death among the young generation in the world. Findings show that the longer you spend your childhood and adolescence in cities, the higher your risk of developing a mental disorder in adulthood. Hence, all of this put together provides a foundation for a causal relationship between urban living and mental illness. 

Going ahead, let us explore some specific factors that increase the risk of such mental problems. 

What Factors Are Responsible For Mental Disorders?

The different mental illnesses mentioned above are mostly the result of loneliness, isolation and stress. But where do these come from? As per the identification of epidemiological studies, the potential problems lie in the concrete landscape of cities. Some of these include:

  • Social inequalities
  • Homelessness
  • Perceived and actual crime
  • Low access to green spaces
  • High levels of noise and air pollution

Urban living is a complex affair composed of contradictory factors that are sometimes difficult to explain. For instance, there is a great difference between a well-to-do resident of a ‘garden city’ and a dweller of a deprived suburb. In this scenario, multiple factors come to light. The former has access to opportunities as well as green space. Whereas the latter doesn’t have those facilities. Moreover, there is also a lack of high-quality housing. Equal opportunities to socialisation, education, employment and access to good healthcare also play a crucial role. 

Fortunately, several smart cities and communities are leading different initiatives to improve mental health. The context given ahead throws light on different approaches that can help make urban living better.

Urban Mind – Helping Design Healthy Smart Cities

Many new studies and researches are leveraging smartphone technology to collect multiple measurements on the daily life of residents. One such citizen-based initiative is being led by Urban Mind in the UK. Through its app, Urban Mind gathers data to understand how urban living is affecting mental wellbeing. Its smartphone app measures the experience of urban and rural living in real-time. 

King’s College London, arts foundation Nomad Projects and landscape architect J&L Gibbons are funding the research. It is also partially financed by a number of UK-based research institutes. These include the National Institute for Health Research, Biomedical Research Centre at South London, and the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation. In addition, Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust has also funded the project. 

Users of the app are notified three times a day to answer questions. These questions are based on how users feel about their surroundings and the environment around them. The project is part of a two-week trial. After the end of this trial, users will receive a personalised report summarizing their experiences during that period. Also, the experiences of the app users will be used in planning and designing healthier cities. 

Residents can download the app via the App Store or Google Playstore on their smartphone. 

NYC Housing Right Challenge

The Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (MOCTO) in New York City has launched a civic tech competition. This initiative intends to seek solutions to help strengthen tenant rights. The project is known as NYCx Co-Labs: Housing Rights Challenge. It is a partnership between 

MOCTO, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and the NYC Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants (MOPT). 

This competition aims to help tenants receive better information about their housing rights. This is especially focused on two low-income Manhattan neighbourhoods which are Inwood and Washington Heights. It is seeking proposals to enable residents to claim their rights. Additionally, it is also exploring strategies to connect tenants with community-based organisations, resources or city service that could help. 

The Housing Right Challenge in NYC is broadly making efforts to address inequality in urban areas. 

NYC Accessible Mental Health Challenge

Developing Mental Health Support For Young Generation

The Same NYCx Co-Labs initiative is spearheading the Accessible Mental Health Challenge. This project is a partnership between MOCTO, NYCEDC and the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC. This competition seeks proposals to improve mental health support in the same low-income neighbourhoods in Manhattan. The focus is on increasing awareness of and access to tools and resources to Latino teenagers. 

As per the city report, approximately 20% of Latino adolescents in NYC have seriously considered suicide. Hence, the city intends to make this young generation understand mental health and mental disorders. And it is looking for increasing access to relevant support when needed. 

The competition will accept applications that address the needs of Latino teenagers. This includes mental health service providers and organisations that provide mental health education and services. In addition, they also expect that the proposals focus on resolving language barriers and cultural differences. As Inwood and Washington Heights majorly have Spanish-speaking populations. 

Two winners will be selected each for the housing challenge and the mental health challenge. Each one will be granted up to $20,000 and will be able to pilot their technology in NYC for a year. April 7, 2020, is the last day for applications.

Surf Therapy – Innovative Way To Defeat Stress

Social Support Initiatives To Relieve Stress

Tim Conibear, a graduate from a UK university found Waves For Change. After spending a long time in South Africa he started a local surfing club in Masiphumelele Township. Soon, the weekend surfing spot attracted local community members, of which Apish Tshetsha and Bongani Ndlovu volunteered to expand the club. Both Apish and Bongani recognised that surfing was a great way to engage young people. This way they could socialise and start sharing their stories and challenges. 

With the idea to provide more social support, the three of them reached out to local social services. Here they realised that these local services were heavily under-resourced and thereby a gap was identified. This is when ‘Waves For Change’ was established. 

The team in collaboration with mental health professionals and development experts launched an award-winning ‘Surf Therapy Programme.’ It works with children ages between 10 and 14 in the most at-risk communities in South Africa and Africa. The initial surfing sessions marked improvement in the feeling of belonging, strength, trust and confidence. The change was noted by teachers and parents. Through access to the ocean, caring mentors, and weekly surfing sessions, 87% of the participating children have shown improvements.

It is important to understand the factors that increase the risk of mental illness are not intrinsic aspects of urban living. The problem lies in poor planning, design and management. But, fortunately, there is a solution to it.