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Big cities mess with our mental health, and it’s been known for centuries

By Francesca Johnson

Dec 17, 2021

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The city. A noisy place where people bustling around are too glued to their phones to even look up. You probably have an image of a glorious metropolis pop up in your mind. Or maybe it’s the iconic scene of Anne Hathaway side stepping the streets of a busy New York City in The Devil Wears Prada, the Friends gang cooped up in the confines of the Central Perk coffee shop or even Carrie Bradshaw stylishly clad on the city’s concrete slabs in her Manolo Blahniks and a Dior saddlebag swinging off her shoulder. For me, it’s the array of dancing images to George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ from Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Whatever comes to your mind, there’s a newly-raised problem with it. Allow me to explain.

For decades, psychologists, philosophers, and urban planners have racked their big brains as to why urban environments could be associated with poor mental health. Many viable and well-believed ideas were brought up during this time. Big Think took note of one theory in particular that caught a lot of traction, which states that city dwellers are routinely placed in emotional states that threaten their psychological wellbeing “such as stress, isolation, and uncertainty.”

How all of these things come together to give the apathetic, listless feeling that I’m sure many of you civilians of the citadel are familiar with is not so clear. Some people make the move to the burgs for opportunity, as big cities are often the hubs of job sectors and economic mobility. Others do so to escape horrid and war-torn conditions, poverty, or abuse. And yet, rather than being the cure to all of their problems, the concrete jungle might be the cancer that needs to be cut out, having the adverse effect of making a fragile or sensitive mental state even worse.

Research accumulated by the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UDMH) has seemingly confirmed the age-long suspicions: people living in cities are more susceptible to mental illness than their countryside-based counterparts.

Since 2010, documented research—such as that conducted by the Research Department at the Arkin Mental Health Institute in Amsterdam—has shown that people who live in cities are far more likely to experience mental health issues compared to those that reside in more quiet, rural areas. In fact, city individuals are almost 40 per cent more likely to suffer from depression. The same study conducted by Jap Peen, a senior researcher at Arkin, showed a 21 per cent increase in anxiety disorders, along with an increased risk of developing substance abuse disorders.

Not to mention, two separate studies both conducted in 2010 (one observed the rural and urban differences and the prevalence of schizophrenia, and the other a meta-analysis of many different studies looking into the topic) found that urban inhabitants are twice as likely to develop the mental health condition. In other words, all of you countryside dwellers and tech antis may have hit the nail on the head a long time ago since it looks like it might just be countryside-1, city-0.

This is not a new concept either. Introducing Georg Simmel, a German sociologist from the 1800s who had many opinions on why the metropolis is so harmful for its citizens. For Simmel, the city is a place of overstimulation. Think about it, how much goes on during your average commute to work? The city has a unique way of rendering people indifferent to the world around them. For example, the silence and avoidance of eye contact, that all London natives are no stranger to, is habitual to any tube journey. While relationships in smaller towns are characterised by emotions, according to Simmel, the ones made in big cities are purely economic.

Urban living certainly comes with a myriad of additional problems, and I’m aware I have only scratched the surface here. Let’s have a closer look at some of the other reasons behind big city depression.

A blasé, blasé, blur

Something about cities brings out the worst in people regardless of them being native to the concrete jungle or a newcomer with predestined trauma in tow. The world of academia has of course come up with theorisations for why this is the case—because really, why are some city people so horrible? Simmel came up with the answer to that ever-so-elusive ‘why’ and it can be found in—cue drumroll—The Metropolis and Mental Life.

Like most world thinkers, Simmel’s writing comes from his experience with the inner workings of the cruel capitalist cityscape. He grew up in the burgeoning metropolis of Berlin during what is known as ‘la Belle Époque’—a period of history between 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, plagued by the uber rich’s inability to deal with the grim reality of modern life.

But Simmel did not share his contemporaries’ unwavering faith in civilisation. Though others saw society as continuously progressing and improving both scientifically and economically, the sociologist could not shake the feeling that humanity had somewhere along the road taken a wrong turn and was swerving into a messy crash.

The Metropolis and Mental Life aimed to capture the essence of Simmel’s woes—within it he compared the differences of living in a rural village to a big city and explained how different environments shape the psychology of people who live surrounded by them. His main point was simple: city dwellers, because we are overexposed to audiovisual stimuli compared to our countryside counterparts, involuntarily construct psychological walls to our surroundings, which makes life feel less worth living.

Likening the nervous system to an electrical circuit, Simmel proposed that, if overstimulated for a prolonged period, it will run dead. In the same way, the emotionally or intellectually stimulated city dwellers quickly cease to find things that excite them—everything fades into a blur. Simmel defined that feeling using the French word ‘blasé’, which can be translated to ‘jaded’ in English.

In his essay, he wrote, “The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things […] The value of the distinctions between things are experienced as meaningless. They appear to the blasé person in a homogeneous, flat and grey color.” How lovely.

Money makes the world go round

Because of the muted existence we seem to be stuck in, Simmel also believed that it’s incredibly difficult for city residents to make intimate connections with the people they meet. Consequently, most interactions with others are brief and impersonal, which is completely different to what takes place in villages, where inhabitants are intimately familiar with each other.

And since the ones living in big cities are unable to establish meaningful relationships, in Simmel’s eyes their interactions with society become individualistic and economic—isolated rather than communal. Gone is togetherness.

Big Think writer Tim Brinkhof summarised that “the attempt to remain independent is, of course, a double-edged sword.” The cost of freedom for city dwellers is mental health and wellbeing. Dodging the psychological potholes in the city is just as difficult as avoiding the physical holes in the road.

One wrong step, and you could trip and fall into a ditch of loneliness, purposelessness, or the most troubling of all, apathy. But it’s not all that bad, right? At least we have the night tube… Oh wait, we don’t.