To boost mental health, let people pick neighborhood fixes

Regeneration of deprived neighborhoods may improve the mental health of people living in the community—if residents pick the regeneration projects.

The study—one of the first to measure changes in mental health during neighborhood regeneration—found a small but measurable improvement in the mental health of residents in areas of Caerphilly County Borough in Wales that underwent community-led regeneration compared to those that didn’t. This was equivalent to one in every three residents in regeneration areas reporting improved symptoms.

There was also a significant trend between length of residence and mental health, suggesting that the longer people resided in areas experiencing regeneration the more their mental health improved.

The neighborhood regeneration project in the study was Communities First—a Welsh government initiative to reduce poverty in the 100 most deprived of the 881 electoral wards in Wales. Using anonymously linked data from Caerphilly County Borough Council, general practices, and existing studies, 10,892 residents from areas that did and did not receive Communities First funding for regeneration were tracked over a seven-year period (2001 to 2008).

“The significance of this research should not be overstated,” says James White, senior lecturer in public health at the Centre for Trials Research and DECIPHer Centre as well as leader of the study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

“Billions of dollars are spent worldwide on regeneration projects, and very few have been evaluated. Our study shows that targeted regeneration, directed by the residents of deprived urban communities, can help to improve the mental health of residents. We found Communities First narrowed the gap in poor mental health between the more and less deprived neighborhoods.”

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During the period studied (2001 to 2008), 1,500 regeneration projects were delivered as part of the Communities First program in Caerphilly County Borough at a cost of £82,857,180 (more than $107 million).

The type of regeneration projects were diverse and included:

• Crime: installing street lighting
• Education: teaching assistants
• Health: provision of sport equipment
• Housing and physical environment: conducting housing maintenance and repairs and redevelopment of waste land
• Vocational training and business support: providing computer skills training to the unemployed
• Community: building community centers

The study also revealed that before regeneration, residents of Communities First areas were more likely to be: unemployed (3.2 percent vs. 2.5 percent), sick or disabled (17.1 percent vs 10.6 percent), live in rented accommodation (25.8 percent vs 14.7 percent), and live in poverty (58.8 percent vs 43.9 percent), than residents of control areas.

White adds: “The Communities First regeneration program we evaluated is unique in that community residents, rather than local councils or governments, identified areas to be regenerated. The policy implication of this finding is that targeted regeneration, directed by the residents of deprived urban communities, may help to reduce inequalities in mental health.”

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The authors hope the research will inform policy to improve mental health and narrow health inequalities at the population-level.

Source: Cardiff University