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City living causes psychosis in kids.

For our sunburnt country of sweeping plains, ragged mountain ranges, and droughts and flooding rains; Australia sure loves a city.

In fact, for the majority of Australians, the city is home.

At the last poll, over two thirds of Australians resided in our urban centers. That’s 21 million people growing up (and growing old) in the concrete jungles that frame our big, brown land. The average Aussie is no longer an outpost of cork hats and chooks in the backyard, people – we are officially a country of city folk.

This is a fact that may come as no surprise to those who currently reside in one of the many inner-city suburbs of Australia: like the rest of the world, these urban environments are growing and spreading at remarkable rates.

According to the UN, the world will add “…approximately one new city of a million every five days until 2050”.

But, as futurists and social scientists consider the ramifications of this kind of urban growth, one very disturbing finding has emerged: kids who grow up in the city are literally going crazy.

"Urban environments are growing and spreading at remarkable rates." Image via iStock.

As they continue to grow and multiply, cities become more and more diverse.

City folk have no type: there are retired couples and young families, young students and corporate professionals, couples, singles, pet-lovers, night owls. Early risers. Good people. Bad people. The city is a melting pot of all different types, which is what city folk love (behind good coffee, of course), and believe shapes their offspring into grounded, inspired, tolerant people.

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But it is also a lonely place to grow up, and new research has shown that the concrete jungle might actually be breeding generations of mentally unstable children.

British college Duke University has unveiled a new study that shows that twice as many children who are raised in cities will suffer from psychosis than those who are raised in rural areas.

"The researchers found that 12-year-olds in urban neighborhoods were almost twice as likely to experience a psychotic symptom than those in non-urban areas," stated the report.

"This held true when controlling for residential mobility, social economic status and family psychiatric history. Around 7.4 percent of children living in urban areas had experienced at least one psychotic symptom by age 12, compared to 4.4 percent living in non-urban areas."

Well, I know they say fresh air is good for children...but that is a shocking statistic.

So what is it about the city that is eroding the mental wellbeing of children?

The largest factors were lack of social cohesion, and crime.

Social cohesion, in the context of this report, basically refers to how well a local neighborhood 'gels'. In the semi-rural villages and suburbs of previous eras, communities were fairly close-knit. This didn't mean they all liked each other and danced around the Maypole holding hands; it simply meant they knew each other. They were were connected.

Next door neighbors remained unchanged often for decades, whilst smaller local businesses had a network of return customers. Everything from school classes to local entertainment venues (like movie theatres, or pubs) were on a smaller scale, and encouraged regular conversation with the same pool of people. Social cohesion created a safety net, a comforting concept for children and adults alike.

Once this community structure begins to break down, those support networks disappear, and the instance of people helping out, taking responsibility for their behavior, or just generally being a good person begins to erode.

In such a busy world, how do you look after your mind? Post continues after video.

Researchers involved in the paper looked at four experiences at the neighborhood level to help determine the cause of the psychotic symptoms.

  1. Supportiveness and cohesiveness between neighbors.
  2. The likelihood that neighbors would intervene if problems occurred in the neighborhood
  3. Disorder in the neighborhood, such as graffiti, vandalism, noisy neighbors and loud arguments
  4. Crime victimization.

They found that the worse the conditions, the higher likelihood kids were to report psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices, or seeing things that others cannot. These symptoms can indicate the onset of schizophrenia later on in life.

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City kids have high rates of psychosis. Why? Image via iStock.

And yet, the city life continues to attract hordes of young families who strongly disagree with the findings. Manhattan-born-and-bred Lena Dunham speaks often about her desire to raise her kids in New York, saying that it made her strong, outspoken, and resilient. And Canadian writer Lori Kittelberg, insists their move to Vancouver's urban West End district was the best move they ever made.

"Lo and behold, we’re still here" she writes.

"Our now six-year-old son has friends from Chile and Japan, and understands what the rainbow flag symbolizes. He knows more people than my husband and I combined, too. Today, we’re closer to our neighbours — even the lady upstairs who once remarked that we should move our young family to the ’burbs. We lack space, but our neighbourhood has plenty of other good qualities."

Any urban center has its good areas and its bad. Sweeping judgements are unfair on the many pockets of inner city living that are as Lori Kittelberg describes - close knit, caring, connected.

But it seems the overwhelming amount of evidence pointing towards the detrimental effects of urban environments are really beginning to stack up.

In an article titled, 'Sick cities: why urban living can be bad for your mental health', author Leo Bendictus investigated how city living damaged the mental health of those living there.

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He looked at the findings of German research facilities who took extensive fMRI imaging of the brains of both city and country folk.

"The researchers, led by Dr Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, were trying to find out more about how the brains of different people handle stress," he wrote.

"They discovered that city dwellers' brains, compared with people who live in the countryside, seem not to handle it so well."

Intrigued, they took it a step further, asking those participating where they grew up.

"The important relationship was not with where the the subjects lived at the time, but where they grew up. Again, those with rural childhoods showed the least active pACCs, those with urban ones the most."

Their theory is a little more complicated than that of Duke University, with the scientists looking to a person's dopamine (the natural drug that creates adrenalin) levels for the answer.

The theory goes like this: cities create stress. Stress creates higher dopamine levels. High dopamine levels create paranoia, and paranoia skews 'normal' situations into something dangerous or completely removed from reality.

"How we explain that at the moment," says one of the researchers, Michael Bloomfield, "is that if there's just a car going past your house, normally your dopamine cells wouldn't fire, because it's just a car."

"But if your dopamine cells are firing, your brain will try and make sense of it. It will seem to say there's something very important about that car, then your brain will try to process that and, depending on your experience and your culture, it might jump to the conclusion that it was MI5 following you around."

Yikes.

As we look forward into the future, one thing is certain: cities are going to continue to grow. The world's population is exploding, and the cities will become more congested. Do we know what this will do to our future generations mental health? Nope.

But what we DO know is that creating a safe community, free from violence or stress, is good for young children's minds. And that is something we can all work towards creating.

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