I’m certain I’ve recorded this story in an earlier blog, but it bears repeating. Several years ago, two of my neighbors suffered from schizophrenia. They were bright and highly educated women. One was a poet and the other an oil painter. Though extraordinarily talented, both were unpredictable. One day, as we were standing in my front yard, I remarked that the street light was flickering and needed to be repaired. The oil painter said “Don’t bother. The city is using the street light to monitor my computer activities.” The poet looked surprised. “Oh. All this time, I thought you were monitoring me.”
Needless to say, life in a modern city can drive anyone a little crazy. More traffic, more pollution and a faster living pace all contribute to the insanity. I’ve certainly noticed it. So did a friend who crossed town this afternoon to pay me a visit. “Driving over the bridge to get to you,’ she sighed, “it seemed like 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The traffic was so heavy.” Both of us remembered when you could schedule a polka party on main street in the afternoons. Times have changed.
Unfortunately, our brains haven’t kept up with the tempo, and researchers have taken notice. Cities, it turns out, are unhealthy places. Noise, isolation, economic inequality tend to predispose people to mental illness. Studies show growing up in a city “nearly doubled the likelihood of psychotic symptoms at age 12,”and “the exposure to crime, along with low social cohesion …were big risk factors” leading to mental illnesses once thought to be strictly hereditary. (“Does City Life Pose a Risk to Mental Health”, by Diana Kwon, Scientific American Mind, Sept/Oct, 2016, pg. 13.)
James Kirkbride, a psychiatric epidemiologist, believes one way to reduce crime in our cities, particularly in low income areas where hopelessness and frustration are in attendance, is to change the environment. If we don’t he predicts, “the cycle of poor mental health may persist across generations.” (Ibid pg. 13.)
Revitalizing pockets of poverty in our inner city doesn’t require rocket science. It requires a will to make the changes. Plant a tree, create a park. Have the courage to open a grocery store where healthy food options and reasonable prices are available. No, not rocket science. Just small miracles.