How do we help city dwellers psychologically?

People who live in the city experience mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction at greater rates than those who live outside urban areas. More than 50% of the world’s population currently live in cities, and that proportion is expected to rise to 66% by 2050. As a result, the need to tackle mental health problems in urban areas is becoming ever more urgent. Despite decades of scientific research and all the treatment and prevention methods currently available, the number of people with mental health problems is not decreasing. The new Centre for Urban Mental Health at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) wants to change this, using a radically different approach, working on a scale not yet seen in this area, and bringing complexity science to bear on the issue. The centre will be launched officially on Friday, 8 November.

Why does one person flourish in the city while another wilts? This question will be the starting point for research at the Centre for Urban Mental Health, in which the UvA will invest 10 million euros in the coming five years. The focus will be on depression, anxiety and addiction – the three most commonly occurring mental health problems.

Insufficient progress

Many factors play a role in mental health problems, including (neuro)biological, genetic, cognitive and socio-economic ones. Family situation and even the neighbourhood where someone lives can also come into play. In addition, there are factors that can increase someone’s vulnerability, for example loneliness, sleep problems or poor physical health. Traditional research into mental health problems has usually focussed on only one specific factor at one particular time, without taking the relationships between the various factors into account. This has meant insufficient insight has been gleaned into how all these different factors influence each other at different times. The lack of focus on these complexities means unsatisfactory progress has been made in treatment and prevention – patients either don’t respond to treatments or they do respond but later experience relapses.

‘In the Centre for Urban Mental Health we will embrace the intertwined nature of psychological problems and disorders with the help of an inter- and transdisciplinary approach,’ says Claudi Bockting, professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry and co-director of the centre. ‘We expect this to lead to new starting points for treatment and prevention. It will give us the possibility to develop treatments that are not only aimed at the patient themselves, but also at social factors, such as the consequences of social inequality.’

‘”Complexity science” will be at the core of all our research at the centre,’ adds co-director and professor of Developmental Psychopathology Reinout Wiers. ‘Our goal is to unravel the complex networks of factors that influence what happens to people’s mental health when they live in the city. We will not succeed if we continue to approach the issue exclusively from the viewpoints of psychology and psychiatry. We are therefore joining forces with our colleagues from other disciplines such as computational science, neurobiology, and communication science.’

‘Game changer’

Peter Sloot, professor of Complex Adaptive Systems and scientific director of the UvA’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), has built up a wealth of knowledge in complexity science in recent years. Sloot: ‘The complexity approach allows us to discover causal relationships in all these interlinked factors and to make numerical predictions about the outcomes of possible interventions. We have already demonstrated this with research into, for example, criminal networks or, very recently, with a study into the prevention of obesity in cities. What we are now going to do together in the Centre for Urban Mental Health is of unprecedented scale and could be the game changer when it comes to tackling mental health problems in the city.’

About the Centre for Urban Mental Health

The Centre for Urban Mental Health will be embedded at the IAS. Three UvA faculties will participate in the centre: Medicine, Social and Behavioural Science, and Science. In addition to Bockting, Wiers and Sloot numerous other renowned UvA scientists are involved, including: Paul Lucassen, Julia van Weert, Karien Stronks and Denny Borsboom. Also involved are prominent international advisors, such as Miranda Wolpert, head of the mental health priority area at the Wellcome Trust. The researchers will collaborate on initial projects with, among others, the municipality of Amsterdam, the GGD (Public Health Service) and the GGZ (Association of Mental Health and Addiction Care).

The launch will take place on Friday, 8 November, from 12:30 to 18:00, in De Duif, Prinsengracht 756, Amsterdam.

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