News Release

Environment impacts mental health of young people - research

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Otago

Living in areas with high numbers of fast food, alcohol and gambling outlets, can negatively impact young people’s mental health, new research shows.

Led by University of Otago Research Fellow Dr Nick Bowden, and Dr Matt Hobbs, of the University of Canterbury, the research - published in the journal Social Science and Medicine - analysed data of nearly one million young people, aged 10 to 24, to investigate whether the environment in which they grow up is associated with their mental health.

Researchers used the Healthy Location Index, a tool developed by the University of Canterbury’s GeoHealth Laboratory, in conjunction with population-level mental health data from Statistics New Zealand’s Integrated Data Infrastructure.

The results showed overall, about one in ten young people were identified as having a mental health condition in 2018.

Young people living in health-constraining environments –areas with close proximity to dairies, alcohol, fast food and gambling outlets, poor access to green spaces, blue spaces, fruit and vegetable stores, and physical activity venues - were more likely to experience poorer emotional and mental health.

In contrast, young people living in health-promoting environments – areas with limited access to unhealthy features and good access to healthy features -  were less likely to have problems with substance-abuse.

Results also indicated that hospitalisations for self-harm were also more likely in health-constraining environments and less likely in health-promoting environments. Behavioural problems, such as ADHD) were relatively stable across all environments.

Dr Bowden says while it is acknowledged that environmental factors are only one of the complex influences impacting youth mental health, the study’s findings could be used to help inform practical interventions by policy-makers.

“The drivers of mental health are complex, but it’s possible we can make significant improvements to mental health at a population level by ensuring the environments people grow up in are healthy, with limited exposure to potentially detrimental features.

“Some of this is not an easy fix; it’s about city planning, creating spaces for parks and so on. But in other cases it is about policy change, such as reducing the number of gaming venues and pokie machines, particularly in poorer communities which at present are targeted by this industry. And it’s about giving communities more power to advocate for what they want in their neighbourhoods such as opposing new alcohol outlets.”

The study is part of a wider two-year project funded by Cure Kids and a Better Start National Science Challenge.

“Having seen the limitations of less nuanced public health interventions, the research team is committed to research that takes multiple factors - including environmental influences - into account. We believe a more holistic focus, including cultural differences and engagement with individuals and communities is key,” Dr Bowden says.

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