Community social cohesion may help improve child and adolescent mental health and behaviour

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Have you ever borrowed a cup of sugar from a neighbour? Would you trust them to keep an eye on your child while playing outside? New research indicates that the degree of social cohesion, or ‘neighbourliness’, of a community may have long-term consequences for children’s mental health and social adjustment.

The neighbourhood environment has well-documented effects on individual health and wellbeing, including mental health. Living in an unsafe or unstable neighbourhood can lead to adverse health outcomes including depression, anxiety, and substance use. On the other hand, cohesive neighbourhoods (those which provide social support, trust, and a sense of community among residents) are thought to contribute positively to residents’ mental health.

In a new study published in Psychological Medicine, researchers at the University of Ottawa and University College London examined patterns of neighbourhood cohesion across childhood (from toddlerhood to preadolescence), and linked these patterns to several different mental health and behavioural outcomes in early adolescence (age 12-15).

Living in low-cohesion neighbourhoods throughout childhood, they found, was associated with increased anxious and depressive symptoms, as well as greater social aggression (e.g., malicious gossip, excluding peers) in adolescence. Declining neighbourhood cohesion from early to late childhood was associated with greater symptoms of hyperactivity, whereas improvements in neighbourhood cohesion were associated with reduced hyperactivity and social aggression. Those in highly cohesive neighbourhoods in early childhood were more likely to engage in prosocial behaviour.

These results suggest that efforts to improve community social cohesion may help improve child and adolescent mental health and behaviour. Higher social cohesion may increase a child’s level of interaction with teachers and other adults in the community, as well as with other neighbourhood children, all of which may contribute to advances in social and emotional development.

The full paper, published in Psychological Medicine, “Trajectories of childhood neighbourhood cohesion and adolescent mental health: evidence from a national Canadian cohort” by M. Kingsbury, J. B. Kirkbride, S. E. McMartin, M. E. Wickham, M. Weeks and I. Colman is can be viewed here free of charge until 31st August 2015 .

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