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Cause and context: place-based approaches to investigate how environments affect mental health

Lovasi, Gina S.; Mooney, Stephen; DiMaggio, Charles J.; Muennig, Peter A.

Objectives

Our surroundings affect our mood, our recovery from stress, our behavior, and, ultimately, our mental health. Understanding how our surroundings influence mental health is central to creating healthy cities. However, the traditional observational methods now dominant in the psychiatric epidemiology literature are not sufficient to advance such an understanding. In this essay we consider potential alternative strategies, such as randomizing people to places, randomizing places to change, or harnessing natural experiments that mimic randomized experiments.

Methods

We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these methodological approaches with respect to (1) defining the most relevant scale and characteristics of context, (2) disentangling the effects of context from the effects of individuals’ preferences and prior health, and (3) generalizing causal effects beyond the study setting.

Results

Promising alternative strategies include creating many small-scale randomized place-based trials, using the deployment of place-based changes over time as natural experiments, and using fluctuations in the changes in our surroundings in combination with emerging data collection technologies to better understand how surroundings influence mood, behavior, and mental health.

Conclusions

Improving existing research strategies will require interdisciplinary partnerships between those specialized in mental health, those advancing new methods for place effects on health, and those who seek to optimize the design of local environments.

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Also Published In

Title
Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-016-1300-x

More About This Work

Academic Units
Epidemiology
Publisher
Springer Verlag
Published Here
December 3, 2016
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