Whilst I was still at school and making my final choices for which university to go to, my German A-level teacher said to me at the time;
‘Are you sure about London? It can be an incredibly lonely place to be.’
At first I was confused. I was going to the capital city from a very small town on the outskirts of Yorkshire. There would be people upon people, crowded pavements and a perpetual buzz. How could you possibly be lonely when you’re surrounded by people? This was part of what excited me, the move from sleepy streets to a metropolis.
However, on reflection, and upon experiencing my first term at UCL, I got it. When you walk down Oxford Street your mindset is focussed- you plough through the streams of people walking against your tide, each with their own destination in mind. Nobody looks at each other. Rarely do you hear someone apologise for bumping in to you (which did annoy me at first, as I would always say sorry, and be irritated by not receiving the same courtesy!) And as for talking on public transport? Not a chance! You are surrounded by people, but remain very much alone.
Moving to a city has changed what I expect people to be ‘like’, from what I have seen people in cities are different to those in more rural areas, and it appears our body’s chemistry may actually reflect this.
An article from the Guardian newspaper last year was entitled
‘Sick cities: why urban living can be bad for your mental health’
and this actually talks about a ‘loneliness in crowds’ theory leading to poorer mental health in cities. A German researcher- Mazda Adli- is cited as saying;
“Obviously our brains are not perfectly shaped for living in urban environments,” …”In my view, if social density and social isolation come at the same time and hit high-risk individuals … then city-stress related mental illness can be the consequence.”
Some other research mentioned in the article suggests that living in cities leads to an overstimulation or alteration in the neurotransmitter dopamine, a change which is often seen in the brains of those with schizophrenia.
So is moving to the city a damaging experience that puts your health at risk? The evidence is mixed. Some say it conversely offers benefits, such as the sound of traffic improving children’s learning ability. However even if the scientific data is yet to be in agreement, from observation it is clear. The way we interact and react towards each other is very different in rural compared to urban areas. Though our bodies are forced more physically close together than ever before in cities, it seems to be simultaneously pushing people away and isolating them.
Loneliness is something that has long had a link to mental state of mind, as early as Durkheim’s work on suicide showing that the larger the familial group, the lower the likelihood of suicide, and Kohn and Clausen, along with others have looked at the role of social isolation in the etiology of mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia. More recently, a lot of work has gone in to combating loneliness in older people, with befriending campaigns being widely advertised and special helplines such as ‘Silverline’ growing in demand and popularity, due to the prevalence of mental illnesses such as depression in this population.
Are effects on mental health strictly in relation to the body? I think so. Not only can our mental health cause a change in how our body may look- stress can cause premature ageing, and there can be a tendency to not look after yourself as well, possibly leading to an unhealthy lifestyle with limited exercise and poor nutrition. These are visible, physical changes, which I will go in to more in my next post. But, if I am to confine myself to a Cartesian dualism of mind and matter, Descartes himself saw the brain as separate from the mind, and it is in this ‘matter’ that we can see physical changes from city living that can impact on our mental well-being.
1. Benedictus, L. (2014). Sick cities: why urban living can be bad for your mental health. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/feb/25/city-stress-mental-health-rural-kind. Last accessed 4th March 2015.
2. Durkheim, E (1895-1917). On Suicide. London: Penguin
3. Kohn, M. L. Clausen, J. A. . (1955). Social Isolation and Schizophrenia.American Sociological Review. 26 (1), p265-273
4. Lederbogen, F. Kirsch, P. Haddad, L. Streit, F. Tost, H. Schuch, P. Wust, S. Pruessner, J. C. Rietschel, M. Deuschle, M. & Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature. 474 (7352), p498-501
5. Lowenthal, M. F. (1964). Social Isolation and Mental Illness in Old Age.American Sociological Review. 29 (1), p54-70
6. Roberts, M. (2014). Lonely elderly flood Silver Line helpline with calls.Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-30175910. Last accessed 4th March 2015.