There are many U.S. cities and neighborhoods that lack affordable housing, and in response, housing advocates and some policy makers call for more. Sometimes lost in the discussion about affordability are other factors that impact the health and wellness of residents, especially those related to mental health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines wellness as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” To a large extent, a person’s health is determined by their circumstances and their environment. Those health determinants include:
- The social and economic environment
- The physical environment, and
- The person’s individual characteristics and behaviors.
For those with a mental health condition, such as depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), living in a neighborhood with poor-quality housing, few resources and unsafe conditions can make what they are experiencing even worse. For healthy individuals, it can lead to high levels of stress and depression which, in turn, may lead to physical ailments or disease. Health equity in housing must take into account the full context in which people live and support neighborhood residents in identifying and achieving common goals that will address their needs.
In addition, mental health, like the WHO wellness definition, is not just the absence of a defined mental health disorder but includes things like emotional and social well-being, social skills and cognitive functioning. In the U.S., approximately 20% of adults have a mental health condition, so the design of housing and community or neighborhood planning can have a significant impact on an individual’s life and associated socio-economic costs.
Mental health issues can be addressed with more attention on the built and exterior environments. While some factors are well-known others may be less obvious. For example, research suggests that natural lighting and proper lighting can help decrease the incidence or severity of neurodegenerative diseases and disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder. It is also well-documented that different ways of interacting with nature have mental health benefits especially in the short-term. Being in nature is also associated with improved sleep and reductions in stress, both of which are risk factors for mental illness.
Here are some suggestions for improving the well-being of neighborhoods and their residents:
- Use of non-toxic, low emitting materials
- Construction that reduces noise levels within the building and from the outside
- Access to fresh air
- Adequate functioning temperature control and ventilation
- Adequate levels of natural lighting and well-designed interior lighting
- Access to places where people can exercise and playgrounds for children
- Well-built sidewalks where people can walk safely, want to be outside and can meet their neighbors
- A substantial tree canopy that will contribute to cooling, increase property values,decrease stress and absorb air pollution
- Mitigation of traffic volume that will decrease pollution and noise that contributes to sleep disorders and stress
- Development of a full complement of basic services such as a supermarket, daycare, doctors and hospital
By not addressing these issues, the wellbeing of millions of individuals, their families and their communities is at risk. Making wellness part of the equation when developing policies and supporting our most disadvantaged neighborhoods will save money and—more importantly—save lives.
Peter Lane is a National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC) and organizational development consultant. He provides health and wellness coaching to individuals, small groups and organizations, and gives presentations and workshops on a variety of topics related to wellness. For more information visit Peter’s website: www.peterlanecoaching.com