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Mental Health

How the “Built Environment” Impacts Symptoms of Depression

— December 29, 2022

Access to transportation and safety can help ease symptoms of depressive disorders.

Depression is a global mental health condition that affects an estimated 280 million people of all ages worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one twentieth of all adults live with depression. Treatment and prevention of depression can be challenging and costly, so researchers are looking into ways that the “built environment” can fight depressive symptoms. 

Recently, a team led by Associate Professor Mohammad Javad Koohsari of the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST) collaborated with researchers from Waseda University, Tohoku University, the University of Tsukuba, Bunka Gakuen University, and the University of Calgary. The scientists conducted a research study on how the built environment may affect depressive symptoms in middle-aged adults.

The built environment refers to the artificial features of an area, including its design, structure, facilities, and services. These features affect health and well-being in general. Still, there has been a lack of empirical studies or models to investigate how the built environment affects depressive symptoms in middle-aged adults. To fill this gap, the JAIST study deemed it essential to include objective measures various elements of perception when assessing how the built environment directly and indirectly affects the onset of depressive symptoms.

How the "Built Environment" Impacts Symptoms of Depression
Photo by Peng Liu from Pexels

The study included a group of middle-aged adults in Japan. Researchers used the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression (CES-D) questionnaire to assess the presence and severity of depressive symptoms. Analyses of perceived and objective measures of the built environment revealed that the actual attributes of the landscape did not correlate with depressive symptoms. Nevertheless, there were significant relationships between perceived features and depressive symptoms.

Symptoms may be influenced by environment design via a variety of behavioral and social routes. The results provide empirical behavioral insights into the importance of improving walkability perceptions, particularly in relation to increasing access to public transportation and decreasing perceived risks associated with crime and traffic, in reducing depressive symptoms in middle-aged men and women.

Of interest, while the specific perceived attributes and associated effects did not vary between genders, gender itself seemed to determine which attributes influence mental health. For middle-aged women, higher perceived access to transport and safety from traffic related to no depressive symptoms or mild depressive symptoms. On the other hand, increased perceived safety from crime had a similar effect on men.

These results suggest that one’s perception of the environment matters. By improving perceptions of neighborhood walkability and enhancing access to public transport and safety from crime and traffic, depressive symptoms may be reduced in adults of both genders.

Depression is a significant health problem that can significantly impact an individual’s life and well-being. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 7.1 percent of American adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2018. Nearly 16 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment in their daily functioning. Without treatment, depression can lead to many complications, including serious health problems, weight gain, substance abuse, and even suicide.

Further research into designing a built environment that minimizes the onset of depressive symptoms and interventions that target managing depression is needed.


Built Environment Correlates of Depressive Symptoms in Middle-Aged Men and Women Living in Japan: An Empirical Study

National Institute of Mental Health: Major Depression

Research in Japan Suggests Using Built Environment Design to Fight Depression

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