Six Ways To Make a Mental Health Friendly City

Most young people are in cities, but urban living is a risk factor for mental health disorders. What can be done? This study is a starting point.


Mental health awareness has been one of the most prevalent health conversations in recent years. From public campaigns and distinct months and weeks dedicated to encouraging us to think about our own mental health and be more kind and considerate of others, we have seen a drastic shift towards destigmatizing and normalizing these discussions.

Many studies have also tackled this issue, looking at the physical tolls of mental health disorders, recommendations for corporations regarding their employees’ mental health, and even the effects of climate change on the mental health of children. However, awareness may be a necessary but not sufficient condition to fully address the complicated roots of mental health disorders.

What else can be done to materially change things? As a new study from a large team of collaborators, including from Canada, suggests, we may find some solutions in our cities.

Healthy cities

The importance of the study lies in one simple fact: our world is becoming increasingly urbanized. More and more young people are moving to cities for their increased economic opportunities, leading to a dramatic rise in urban populations.

Citing a Unicef report, the authors highlight that nearly three-quarters of all children in 2050 will be living in a city. Furthermore, they also cite a body of research indicating urban environments as a risk factor for poorer mental health and a variety of disorders. The complex web of social, economic, cultural, and political noise in urban cities play a large role in this, so how can they be addressed to make our cities more mental health-friendly?

To gain insight, the researchers administered a set of surveys to a group of over 500 people consisting of both youth and experts in a variety of fields. In short, the surveys asked the respondents: “What are the characteristics of a mental health-friendly city for young people?” They were then asked to select their preferred answers from the total sample and rank them, in addition to being asked about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth mental health in cities.

The researchers then analyzed the results to extract important themes and domains.

The results

The study team organized responses into six domains: intrapersonal, interpersonal, community, organization, policy, and environment. While a wide variety of suggestions were provided, the most highly-ranked response in each category stated that a mental health-friendly city (MHFC):

  1. “… teaches life skills for young people, provides opportunities for personal development and provides resources that allow young people to flourish” (Intrapersonal)
  2. “… has an open-minded, age-friendly environment in which everyone values the feelings, opinions and choices of youth and accepts youth for their uniqueness” (Interpersonal)
  3. “… has free and public spaces for youth to gather, socialize, learn and connect with each other” (Community)
  4. “… has employment opportunities appropriate for youth, and allows youth to work productively with job security and job satisfaction” (Organization)
  5. “… is designed and planned with youth input and attention to the needs of people of different genders” (Policy)
  6. “… addresses adverse social determinants of health” (Environmental)

While these suggestions are broad and will require great political willpower and resolve to implement, they can act as a stepping stone to making our cities more mental health-friendly.

The authors suggest that a unifying theme for any MHFC is “the quality of young people’s social fabric and the city’s ability to provide young people with the skills, opportunities and places required to build and maintain healthy social relationships with their peers, across generations, and as members of a community.”

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Borna Atrchian is an MA student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Having previously completed a Behavioural Neuroscience degree, he is passionate about issues where politics and power intersect with psychology and human behaviour. He is interested in understanding the conditions that create distrust of the scientific community, as well as finding the most effective ways to rebuild this trust.