IIS Honours module on Urban Mental Health: ‘A very good exercise in academic freedom’

University of Amsterdam

There’s still a long way to go before global urbanisation reaches its peak. While 50% of the global population currently lives in an urban region, that is expected to increase to about 70% by 2050. Urban regions have proven to be economically attractive and have many temptations and enticements, but are simultaneously challenging and stressful in terms of mental health. The UvA’s Centre for Urban Mental Health conducts research into the nature of those challenges and intervention strategies, primarily from an interdisciplinary perspective. The IIS has recently started offering an Honours module on Urban Mental Health. Prof. Reinout Wiers and prof. Claudi Bockting talk about the importance of transcending disciplines and their problem-based approach.

The founders of the UvA’s Centre for Urban Mental Health – a collaboration between the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Faculty of Science and the Institute for Advanced Studies – are Prof. Reinout Wiers and Prof. Claudi Bockting.

Copyright: UVA

There is a connection between the degree of urbanisation of a country and the degree to which common mental disorders occur. One major example is ‘the big three’: anxiety, depression and addiction. All three of those occur to a significant extent in an urban context.
prof. Reinout Wiers

Claudi: ‘At the same time, we see that while a lot of research has been conducted into depression, for example, it offers few guidelines for the prevention or treatment thereof. In the Urban Centre for Mental Health, we make use of the insights from complex systems science, which doesn’t look for just a single factor, such as biological or social, but which examined networks of factors that play a role in the origin of a symptom. Those networks are dynamic systems that are constantly changing; the factors are in a state of flux and influence each other continuously.’

Reinout: ‘To put it simply: in an urban environment, you have a greater chance of experiencing stress. Because of that stress, you may sleep less well, as a result of which you may be inclined to start using substances to mitigate that. That can influence your performance at work, you may lose your job, your relationships can be damaged by it, etc. Those factors influence and – in this case – reinforce each other. Moreover, you can’t isolate them from each other; you must consider them in relation to each other. You, therefore, need a different method in that case to discover which factors and interactions between those factors are important to the development and persistence of disorders.’

Transcending disciplines

Claudi: ‘It means almost by definition, therefore, that you need people from a wide range of disciplines to study urban mental health issues and in way that transcends the various disciplines. Examples include disciplines like neurobiology, psychology, sociology, public health, psychiatry, but also communications. We also see that in the honours module that we offer: the students come from all kinds of backgrounds. That is enormously inspiring. In any case, it’s great to sit down together with extremely smart students and share our passion for a question that’s occupied us for some time already: why does one person flourish in the city, while the other becomes completely stuck?’

Reinout: ‘We use the problem-based approach, precisely because that works very well if you bring together people from different disciplines who jointly reflect on complex problems. Students come up with a problem they want to examine themselves and you then see that everyone subsequently comes to the table with their own prior knowledge. As a group, you then map out what you already know together, but especially what you don’t yet know. We’ve already noticed that the problem-based approach has a very motivating effect on students. It is an active approach and differs markedly in that regard from the classical approach in which you, as a student, are more of a passive observer.’

Copyright: AMC

You can see very beautiful scientific ideas arise, new hypotheses that are immediately ripe for research. You take on the challenge together of looking at the system as a whole; of not being the expert in everything, but still being allowed to hypothesise. That is a very good exercise in academic freedom
prof. Claudi Bockting

In-depth discussions

Irina de Haas is a second-year Psychobiology student at the UvA and took the Honours module on Urban Mental Health: ‘My degree programme is mainly focused on the individual and I thought it would be interesting to conduct research that is more in the context of and aimed at society. Broader. Mental health in an urban setting. However, it was ultimately even broader than I had expected beforehand. It was also about the influence of social media. About epigenetics. About so many things. As I didn’t have any experience with the problem-based approach, it took some getting used to. You have to do an awful lot yourself, although there is supervision. However, you learn a lot from each other precisely because of that and you come into contact with fields of study which you’re never involved with normally. You have truly in-depth discussions every week. I take things from these discussions which I can use in my further studies. For example, thinking on the basis of the complexity model. I notice that I look at things differently now. Less linear, more on the basis of complex connections.’

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