If you live in London, you’re more likely to suffer from poor mental health than someone living outside the capital. That is according to the latest reliable data on mental health from 2014, as illustrated by Centre for London’s latest London Intelligence report.
The scientific community is still exploring the links between city living and mental health, and there have been mixed findings. The causes of mental health problems are complex, but some elements of living in London could be placing additional pressure on Londoners. People in cities tend to have better access to health care, employment and education but can also be exposed to risk factors such as poverty, social isolation, reduced leisure time, noise pollution, overcrowding and traffic.
It is surprisingly easy to feel lonely in this big city. Loneliness is associated with increased risks of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and issues with sleeping. It has many causes but one that is perhaps more common in a transient place like London, is living away from family, friends or community networks. The recent Survey of Londoners showed that, on average, eight per cent of Londoners feel lonely always or often; something felt more strongly by those on lower incomes.
Having access to open and green spaces – parks, gardens, woods – can help to improve and maintain mental wellbeing. Children who grow up in greener surroundings have a greatly reduced risk of developing mental illnesses later in life. Londoners – in some respects – are quite lucky as the city’s abundance of green space meant it was recently declared the world’s first National Park City. However if these spaces are inaccessible, feel unsafe or exclusive, the people who need them most can be put off from using them.
Regular physical activity is not only good for fitness but can also help to improve mental health. Though London matches the English average for time spent on physical activity by adults, those in the east of the city are shown to be the least active, with just over half of residents in Newham and Barking & Dagenham getting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week in 2017/18.
Financial pressures can also contribute to poor mental health and Londoners are saddled with more unmanageable debt than anywhere else in the country. Poor mental health can also be aggravated or caused by work-related issues. For example, Londoners work two hours a week more than the UK average, clocking up around 100 extra working hours over the year. Employers should be looking to adopt policy and procedures which support their staff’s mental health, from encouraging a healthy work life balance to having open conversations about mental health in the office.
How can city makers help to address mental health challenges? Mental health is a key public health issue, and its effects extend far beyond the individual. In 2014, the Greater London Authority found that the wider impacts of mental ill health result in around £26 billion each year in total economic and social costs to London. Its prevalence has put increased pressure on NHS services and it’s also affecting the workplace, through reduced productivity and increasing numbers of sick days: 38 per cent of absence days from work in Great Britain are due to stress, anxiety and depression.
This means solutions should be both local and London wide. Leadership and intervention is required from City Hall, London boroughs, employers, urban planners and more. The Mayor of London and individual London boroughs are already doing more to support Londoners with their mental health than ever before.
In 2017, the Greater London Authority launched Thrive LDN, a citywide movement to improve mental wellbeing across the capital, with a focus on prevention, which included a festival for this year’s World Mental Health Day. Several London boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets and Hackney councils, which have the highest prevalence of mental health issues in the capital, have put strategies in place to deliver better outcomes for residents who need support. The Local Government Association has also done work to encourage councils to combat loneliness in their area.
Londoners’ mental and physical health is, to a large extent, determined by the environment in which they live. The Mayor’s emphasis on “good growth” involves prioritising health in all London’s planning decisions and the draft new London Plan is a step in the right direction. It gives more thought than previously to improving access to and quality of green space, as well as to ensuring that public space is safe and inviting. The Mayor and Transport for London should also continue to encourage Londoners to make active journeys, through improving travel options such as walking and cycling.
London’s city makers can play a vital role in supporting better mental health and creating a more liveable city. It’s already a priority as illustrated by the progress above, but as London continues to grow and change, there is always more that policymakers can do. Health and, in particular, mental health can vary widely from place to place, but is often shaped by deprivation and social background. And so it’s important that entrenched issues, such as poverty, low pay and poor working practices also continue to be addressed at the same time.
Amy Leppanen is senior communications officer at Centre for London. The the latest edition of Centre for London’s The London Intelligence, examines health and wellbeing data and is sponsored by Therme Group.
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