Geography and Depression Research

Mark Altaweel

Updated:

Mental health has become an increasing important issue for researchers, in light of alarming rises in  different illnesses and actions, including violence, self-harm, and stresses seen in the elderly in particular.

We do not often think that spatial analysis has relevance when it comes to research on depression but some research and researchers have looked at the links between how spatial understanding can better inform us on mental health and depression.

The effect of access to water on mental health

Recent research has looked at the effects of blue space, that is access to water such as freshwater and coastal access. In Scotland, researchers gained access to data on antidepressant prescription data and the spatial analysis resulted in statistically significant results showing that blue space does have a beneficial mental health benefit.

A girl with a white sweatshirt and black leggings dances in the shallow water of the beach by the ocean.  Her back is to the camera and the sun is shining with a clear blue sky.
Access to bodies of water can have a positive benefit on mental health. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

The research showed that neighbourhoods near freshwater and individuals residing near (<1 km) or along the coast and/or large freshwater lakes showed much lower use of antidepressant medication.


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Blue space appears to give outdoor activity access as well as positive feeling that has significant mental health benefits, even at a greater level for older adults, that as those greater than 50 years of age, than green space, which has been more widely studied.[1] 

Access to green space is also important for mental health

In a questionnaire study made to use spatial data and conducted to look at the effect of the pandemic on health, it was found in England, using bootstrap-resampled correlations and binomial regression models, that mental health was generally much better for individuals who lived near green space or were able to spend more time in green space during stringent lockdown conditions.

A trail through trees.
Access to nature is important for mental health. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

In other words, the pandemic has much less effects leading to depression if individuals were able to more easily access wide green areas, including nature reserves and parks. It was not only such green spaces, but even food growing allotments were found to create mental health benefits. Individuals living within 100 and 250 m from food growing allotments were found to be significantly better in their mental coping.[2]

The geography of health influences on individuals

In a study in New Zealand using the national Healthy Living Index, researches looked at a variety of negative and positive health influences on individuals in terms of areas they lived near. Areas that were negative on mental health and depression were deemed to have more fast-food outlets, takeaway outlets, convenience stores, alcohol stores, and gaming venues.

On the other hand, regions that had greater positive outlets, including green and blue spaces, physical activity  facilities, and fruit and vegetable outlets, were found to have a far better impact on reducing psychological distress and improving mental health outcomes.

This is when factors of age, race, and sex were also controlled for. The researchers suggest that planning for neighbourhoods should consider the effects of different outlets and access on mental health and depression.[3]

Using social media to measure mental health

Studies have also attempted to use social media to measure the pandemic on how people have reacted and felt in adapting to the pandemic. Using natural language processing, including term frequency-inverse document frequency (TF-IDF) and multimodal features captured in posts, researches demonstrates that areas with strict lockdowns in Australia did experience far higher rates for negative emotion and attitudes based on Twitter postings.

This includes accounting for posts on different topics related to domain-specific perspectives. Generally, spatial effects of how severe lockdowns were in areas, and length of time, should be accounted for to mitigate depression as communities begin to emerge out of the strictest restrictions.[4]

Mapping access to mental health

In the United States, studies are showing that access to mental health facilities are a major cause for concern, with 123 million Americans designated as living in Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.

While it is not only a lack of professionals who can aid those with mental health concerns, a review of GIS research has shown that types of care (integrated, community), access issues, (including time, distance, cost, feeling of having to travel, and inequality in mental health facilities), and general utilization of services are major causes of concern. In other words, geographic factors affecting facilities and their resources as well as a lack of professionals in areas have created an inability to respond to increasing mental health needs.

While the pandemic was not accounted for in the study, the effects may become magnified as more individuals will likely need some form of care. The study also points out that spatial approaches need to be increasingly incorporated on mental health studies given the importance of geographic variation in access to mental health resources that is driving inequalities in the healthcare system.[5]

What is clear is that spatial patterns of depression are evident in a variety of communities and spatial methods should be routinely applied if we are to understand the impact of different stresses and environmental effects on mental health.

To best address depression, access to resources, including positive environmental stimulus and healthcare professionals, as well as minimized negative stressors, including outlets that promote unhealthy lifestyles, are likely needed to encourage healthier mental health and diminish the effects of depression. The concerns seem to be comparable across many countries, suggesting that many comparable factors affect different populations’ mental health and well being.

References

[1]    For more on the mental health benefit of blue space and study showing how it benefits older adults in Scotland, see: McDougall, Craig W., Nick Hanley, Richard S. Quilliam, Phil J. Bartie, Tony Robertson, Michael Griffiths, and David M. Oliver. 2021. “Neighbourhood Blue Space and Mental Health: A Nationwide Ecological Study of Antidepressant Medication Prescribed to Older Adults.” Landscape and Urban Planning 214 (October): 104132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2021.104132.

[2]    For more on the effects of green space and food growing allotments on mental health during the pandemic, see: Robinson, Jake M., Paul Brindley, Ross Cameron, Danielle MacCarthy, and Anna Jorgensen. 2021. “Nature’s Role in Supporting Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Geospatial and Socioecological Study.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18 (5): 2227. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18052227.

[3]    For more on the urban environment and effects on mental health in New Zealand, see: Hobbs, M., S. Kingham, J. Wiki, L. Marek, and M. Campbell. 2021. “Unhealthy Environments Are Associated with Adverse Mental Health and Psychological Distress: Cross-Sectional Evidence from Nationally Representative Data in New Zealand.” Preventive Medicine 145 (April): 106416. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106416.

[4]    For more on a study looking at Twitter users and their posts during lockdown in Australia, see:  Zhou, Jianlong, Hamad Zogan, Shuiqiao Yang, Shoaib Jameel, Guandong Xu, and Fang Chen. 2021. “Detecting Community Depression Dynamics Due to COVID-19 Pandemic in Australia.” IEEE Transactions on Computational Social Systems, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1109/TCSS.2020.3047604.

[5]    For more on mental health access in the United States and resources related to mental health access, see:  Smith-East, Marie, and Donna Felber Neff. 2020. “Mental Health Care Access Using Geographic Information Systems: An Integrative Review.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing 41 (2): 113–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/01612840.2019.1646363.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.