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Study Roundup: Does Living in a Nicer Neighborhood Affect the Mental Health of At-Risk Youth?

Researchers from Northeastern University report that only girls from healthy families are positively affected in terms of mental health when moving from high- to low-poverty communities.

A housing project-- by Nina Lincoff

The Gist

When it comes to nature versus nurture, researchers are betting on nurture in regards to whether moving children from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods positively affects mental health. Children are highly susceptible to influence from external factors, and it has been suggested that children and adolescents living in high-poverty environments are more at risk for developing psychiatric problems.

In a study published earlier this week in Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers from Northeastern University in Boston found that changing up the environment for youths in low-income families did little for improving mental health. The only population that seemed to positively benefit from moving upwards were females living with families without baseline health vulnerabilities. Girls living with families with health vulnerabilities and boys from both health-divided subgroups didn’t show any intervention benefits.

Researchers examined families from the Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program (MTO), which was a randomized, controlled trial evaluating the effects of different environments on mental health. MTO has been the only such trial examining the effects of low- and high-poverty living situation on children, and was sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Data was collected from five cities: Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

The Expert Take

Researchers were surprised by the different results anchored by gender and baseline family health, said study author Theresa Osypuk, ScD, ScM in an email to Healthline. Because health and gender were two such dominant factors in this study, they should inform housing mobility studies moving forward, Osypuk said. Including health is particularly important because it “was not an outcome that was originally anticipated to be affected by the MTO study organizers.” Not anticipated, but no less significant. 

“It will be important for future housing mobility efforts to incorporate supportive services across sectors to help low-income children and families succeed, given the many social and health-related disadvantages this segment of the population faces,” said Osypuk. 

The Bottom Line

Although areas with highly concentrated poverty are more likely to be populated by families of racial and ethnic minorities, dispersing these families doesn’t necessarily affect positive mental health changes in children and adolescents. The gender of the child and the health characteristics of the entire family determined the successful mental health of youths in this study. The relevance of family health to this study indicates that there needs to be external health and care support for families in high-poverty areas.

Resoundingly, the study found that only girls living with relatively healthy families were positively affected by the move. The neighborhood dimensions that improve when moving between low- and high-poverty areas may simply be more poignant for these girls' emotional health, said Osypuk. Specifically, neighborhood sexual aggression and abuse has been proven to be higher in high-poverty areas. When that threat is minimized, girls from healthy families have a better opportunity to take advantage of their new communities.

Males, however, did not fare as well in this study. Adolescent boys living with relatively unhealthy families could be negatively affected by the change in environment. The findings, rather than dissuading families from moving from high- to low-poverty areas, suggest instead that families currently living with children in high-poverty areas need a little extra help.

Additionally, these findings point towards groups of children and adolescents who are at greater risk for mental health problems. Male youths in general and female youths living with health-vulnerable families seem to be most susceptible to environmental factors affecting mental health.

Source and Method

Families were deemed eligible for the MTO program if they had children younger than 19 years old and were currently living in public housing or assisted-living projects that were in high-poverty areas. Families were given Section 8 housing vouchers to facilitate the move, or found other means beside the vouchers provided by MTO.

Osypuk and her fellow researchers examined 2,829 adolescents who were randomized between 1994 and 1997 in MTO data, and were 12 to 19 years old as of May 31, 2001. Follow-up for the Northeastern study was conducted with an interim survey and had an 89 percent effective response rate.

Of the children studied, 50 percent were male, 63 percent were African American, and 30 percent were Hispanic. 43 percent were living with families with baseline health vulnerabilities, and this group, regardless of gender, was not positively affected by moving out of areas with high-poverty concentrations.

Other Research

In 2003, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined the effects of moving on public health, and concluded that boys who moved to areas with lower poverty reported fewer mental health problems than boys who stayed in public housing.

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Tags: Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy

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