Neighbourhood diversity makes a difference to young people's mental health

White British young people who live in more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have better mental health than those living in “white working-class” neighbourhoods, according to research from University College London.

The researchers looked at the ethnic density (the proportion an ethnic group in a neighbourhood), the ethnic diversity (the distribution of the population) in neighbourhoods and the mental health of over 4,000 young people aged between ten and 15 years of age in England who take part in Understanding Society.

They found that the mental health of White British young people is worse when they live in deprived, but ethnically uniform neighbourhoods, where their ethnic group is the vast majority. In contrast, the ethnic diversity and density of a neighbourhood made no difference in the mental health of ethnic minority young people. Compared with White British young people, ethnic minority young adults tend to live in neighbourhoods with more diversity and almost none live in neighbourhoods where their ethnic group is in the majority.

Dr Stephen Jivraj (UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care), senior co-author of this research said, “Our finding that the ethnic majority tend to have worse mental health when living in less ethnically diverse, deprived neighbourhoods is new.

“We hypothesised that areas where the proportions of similar ethnic groups were higher may operate as a shield against the negative effects of racial discrimination, but our results do not find evidence to support this.”

Mental health outcomes were measured by a total difficulties score capturing four areas of potential difficulty (emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity-in-attention, and peer relationship problems) and one area of strength (prosocial behaviour). Factors that have been associated with mental health such as parents’ country of birth, parental education, family income and frequency of family communication were also taken into account.

White British youths living in neighbourhoods that are deprived and not ethnically diverse had a total difficulties score that was almost 2 points higher than those living in all other neighbourhoods, including deprived and diverse neighbourhoods. This is as important to the total difficulties score as communication with parents, specifically the difference between a youth talking to their parents every day and a youth who hardly ever talks to their parents.

A key strength of the study was the large sample size which allowed the researchers to test, for the first time, the interaction between neighbourhood ethnic diversity and deprivation and mental health among adolescents.

Dr Jivraj added, “Our findings have important implications for policy makers looking to improve conditions in deprived neighbourhoods as they can be mindful that white working-class neighbourhoods may be linked to poorer mental health among white children. We do also note that a limitation of the study is that it does not enable a nuanced picture to emerge as to how particular ethnic minority groups benefit more or less from ethnic diversity or which ethnic minority groups are most supportive for the ethnic majority.”

Read the full report: Mental health and ethnic density among adolescents in England: A cross-sectional study