Environmental Enrichment on Mental Health


Mental Illness is a societal problem on a global spectrum. Far too often, society will segregate the mentally ill, not only avoiding contact, but ignoring a growing concern that can affect anyone, at any given time.  Disregarding a problem that is difficult to understand, and avoiding the vulnerable and marginalized, seems to be a commonality in many large cities. Mental illness, still to this day, carries a social stigma and unfortunately, this can be a cyclical problem that further increases an already complicated dilemma.

In the United States, 20-25% of the homeless population suffer from a mental illness.  And though mental illness is often the causing factor of homelessness, the dire situation has been shown to further increase mental illness symptoms.  This is a cycle that seems to be intangible with many obstacles preventing a reasonable solution.   Homelessness will affect not only mental health, but physical health as well.  Deteriorating environmental conditions, poor eating habits and stress diminishes any possibility of recovery or remission and thus perpetuating the cycle that keeps the mentally ill further marginalized.


Ethics and Autonomy

Ethics can ironically be a barrier in providing help for those that suffer from more severe disorders.  Autonomy is a right for everyone, however in reality, those that suffer are not necessarily deemed fit to make important decisions regarding their well-being. More social programs from the mentally ill, can increase positive emotional stimulation. However, society cannot force anyone to be part of a program without full consent. Paranoia, depression and anxiety are circumstances that can prevent the individual from seeking the help required, as denial and antisocial behavior is a trademark of mental illness.


Neurogenesis and Mental Illness

For decades, scientists have been conducting experiments showing a strong correlation between an enriching environment and psychological and emotional development.

A nurturing environment has been shown to be extremely beneficial in the developing brain.  Neurogenesis is the growth and development of neurons and neuronal pathways throughout the lifespan, and research has shown that positive and negative experiences in both the early childhood developing years as well as adulthood can manipulate neurogenesis.  Sleep deprivation, trauma and stress can be strong factors in impeding neurogenesis, decreasing the development of new neurons.

With the understanding that the adult brain still takes part in neurogenesis, it also stands to reason that negative factors such as sleep deprivation, hunger and homelessness can have lasting negative affects on those already predisposed to mental health issues.

With this logic, it seems obvious that rather than neglecting the problem; leaving this overwhelming burden in the hands of social workers and exhausted resources, the solution should be to develop and implement enriched environments for those that need it.



Photo Courtesy of 15th Wing

An Enriching Solution

Mood disorders, being a large part of mental illness has been shown to reduce neurogenesis, and Environmental enrichment including cognitive stimulation has shown to promote the development of neurogenesis.

Creating more community spaces dedicated to the homeless, and marginalized for social interaction and cognitive stimulation, such as games and art, can provide an opportunity to improve and perhaps learn to adapt within social situations.  More programs specifically for those that are at risk can provide hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.



Importance of Environment

Urban planning is now starting to take mental illness into consideration, as research conducted by Leaders from the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre responsible for Urban Planning has found that certain layouts of city living can contribute to depression.  A study conducted in Mumbai, New York City and Berlin discovered that streets or avenues with very little design or features on their buildings prompted physiological responses suggesting sadness or boredom.  Whereas, open areas, green spaces and open, inviting doorways led to happier physiological responses, with a reduction in depression and anxiety.  These findings are a compelling step towards improving mental health with environmental enrichment.

Making a Difference

Many large cities are faced with an insurmountable rate of homelessness as well as mental health issues, and one very popular solution seems to be moving the ‘already’ marginalized to areas further outside of the downtown location through gentrification.  This may appear as a fix from an external viewpoint, however if we could perhaps make room within these neighborhoods for more community centers, providing a greater amount of environmental, social, and cognitive enrichment to those at risk, then this could ultimately be a lasting solution benefiting those who need it the most.


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