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Why Places Matter for our Wellbeing

The following post is an interview with Professor Jamie Pearce and Professor Sarah Curtis about how our surroundings affect our health. It was originally posted in April 2017 in the build up to the Edinburgh Science Festival.

What might the audience expert to learn from this event?

While there are many things we can do as individuals to improve our health and wellbeing, action to create a healthier environment also requires community, societal and political responses. We will report on research that explores how and why the places where we live, work and play affect our mental health, and, with the help of the audience, identify some likely ways to make our environment healthier.

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People might expect that being in pleasant surroundings can lift our moods, but please can you briefly outline how your research goes beyond this?

We know from lots of research over many years that the places in which we live, work and play can be both beneficial and detrimental to our health and mental wellbeing. Our research has shown that ‘therapeutic’ properties of places include high levels of community cohesion, availability and accessibility of high quality green spaces, and investment in infrastructure to support physical activity, such as cycle paths.

On the other hand, places can be damaging to our mental health if, for example, they are characterised by high levels of crime, pollution, poor physical conditions and a lack of secure and rewarding employment opportunities. Our research also explores how different groups vary in their response to their environment. For instance, the mental health benefits of living in a greener environment are greater for those who are relatively poor, as compared with for wealthier groups. This finding is important, since the Scottish Government and other policymakers need to know what works in terms of environmental planning to reduce health inequalities.

Why is now a good time to highlight the findings of your work?

Like many other countries, mental health in Scotland is a major public health challenge. We know that many mental health outcomes are significantly poorer in Scotland than they are in England. It is estimated that around one in three people are affected by mental illness in any one year. People in the most socially disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected. For example, our work has shown that adults living in the most deprived parts of Scotland are almost three times as likely to have common mental health problems as those in the least deprived areas.

It is no wonder that improving mental health is a priority for the Scottish Government and is one of 55 national indicators chosen to chart the country’s progress towards the achievement of our National Outcomes – wellbeing targets set by the Scottish Government.

Can you give one or two examples of how people might make simple changes to their surroundings to improve their wellbeing?

Our research has shown very clearly that so much to do with our health is outside of our personal control. To make substantial improvements to our health – including mental wellbeing – requires us to think and act collectively. As individuals, we can get involved in helping to make the places we live more supportive for mental health and wellbeing through getting involved in community initiatives, making therapeutic spaces more accessible, and ensuring our workplaces are supportive.

Can you highlight one or two outcomes from your research that have surprised you?

One of the most fascinating findings from our recent research is that the circumstances early in our lives can have lasting lifelong implications. For example, we have found that characteristics of the places we live during our childhood years can affect mental health and cognitive ageing much later in life. These findings change the way in which we think about the relationships between places and health; to date we have probably not appreciated quite how important places are for our health over our whole lives. It also means that changes we make to our environment now to make places better for mental health are likely to benefit the next generation as well as ourselves.

What is your motivation for bringing your research to the Science Festival?

We think that improving mental health is a major challenge for Scotland and other countries in the UK. To make substantial and sustained progress will require some joined-up thinking, which recognises that mental health is influenced by a range of social, political and environmental factors in our communities. Having conversations about these issues, and identifying possible solutions to such important challenges, is an important way of helping to make sure that important research findings are acted on.

Call for papers – Health & place across the life course – AAG, Boston, April 2017

We’re organising a session entitled Health and Place Across the Life Course at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Boston, MA, April 5-9 2016. If you’re interested in contributing a paper then please get in touch. Further details here:

Session title: Health and place across the life course
Session organisers: Niamh K Shortt and Jamie Pearce, Centre for Research on Environment, Society & Health, University of Edinburgh.

Life course research has been instrumental in establishing that social, economic and cultural factors can influence health in later life either through, for example, an accumulation of effects or through critical periods.  There has however been little work by health geographers that has considered how factors that are rooted in place accumulate to influence health and wellbeing through the life course. Reasons for this may include the lack of readily available historical environmental data and the challenges that their collection pose. The absence of such research is problematic because it is likely to restrict our understanding of the ways in which places matter for health, including: the accumulative effects of place over the life course; the critical periods in people?s lives when places are particularly pertinent for health and wellbeing; and, for quantitative work, identifying causal relationships.

This session calls for research papers that incorporate environmental and/or social life course perspectives in order to answer these critical questions.  We welcome both empirical (quantitative or qualitative) and theoretical papers. We particularly welcome papers that consider the challenges of merging historical and contemporary data in health and place research.  Abstracts (maximum of 250 words) should be submitted to Niamh Shortt niamh.shortt@ed.ac.uk  by September 30th 2016.

All accepted participants will be required to register and submit your abstract to the AAG following the AAG guidelines http://www.aag.org/cs/annualmeeting/register and to send your PIN number to niamh.shortt@ed.ac.uk  by October 27, 2016.

Seeing e-cigarettes in shops may influence their use by teenagers

By Jamie Pearce

Adolescents who recall seeing e-cigarettes in shops are more likely to have tried them in the past and are more likely to intend to try them in the future, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.

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Source: http://www.ecigclick.co.uk. Creative Commons License

Continue reading Seeing e-cigarettes in shops may influence their use by teenagers

Neighbourhood availability of tobacco is likely to be a factor in explaining adult smoking in Scotland

In our new paper published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research we find that adults in Scotland living in environments with a greater availability of tobacco outlets are more likely to smoke, and less likely to quit. This follows on from our earlier work, in which we found that teenagers in Scotland are more likely to smoke if they live in areas with the highest number of tobacco retailers.cigarette-counter-725x544 Continue reading Neighbourhood availability of tobacco is likely to be a factor in explaining adult smoking in Scotland

Food environments around schools: what historical data might reveal about current obesity patterns

Life course, environments & health

We know that factors throughout life influence our health and well-being in older age. Childhood poverty, early life education, difficult life events and many other factors have been shown to be strongly related to subsequent health outcomes. Yet almost all of this work has focused on our individual circumstances, and there have been few attempts to consider whether a wider set of factors – such as those at the community or neighbourhood level – affect our health over the life course. This is perhaps a surprise given the evidence that features of our local environment – such as air pollution, green space, and high numbers of retailers selling fast food, alcohol or cigarettes – are often associated with current health status. If these factors are causally related to health then there may be a number of policy opportunities (e.g. see our recent post on alcohol retail licensing). Continue reading Food environments around schools: what historical data might reveal about current obesity patterns

Watch CRESH seminar on YouTube: Why is urban health so unequal?

Why is urban health so unequal?

CRESH member Prof Jamie Pearce recently contributed to an event jointly organised by the  Global Environment and Society Academy (GESA) and the Global Health Academy to deliver a public seminar series exploring the complex relationships between environment and health.  The seminar series marks The Year of  Environment and Health and will examine key issues such as urbanisation, population growth, extreme weather, pollution and  ecosystem services through the lens of global environmental change. You can watch the public lecture here: