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Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Is there a connection between the mental health of young people and the physical environment in which they grow up?

That is the question a diverse group of researchers will be seeking to answer in a new study backed by a $500,000 Cure Kids/A Better Start Grant.

Nick Bowden image
Nick Bowden.

Study leader Nick Bowden, of the Otago Medical School, said the influence of environmental effects on mental health in early life was a growing area of research.

“We are seeking determine whether young people have better mental health if they grow up in areas with more ready access to healthy environmental features such as green and blue spaces (e.g. parks and rivers), compared to unhealthy environmental features such as gaming venues, takeaway shops, and liquor outlets.

“It might seem a bit of a no-brainer that you don't want your kids growing up around liquor stores, but actually having some hard evidence in front of policymakers that communities can use to advocate for changes would be really empowering.”

Mr Bowden, who is with the Big Data Team of the A Better Start National Science Challenge, says the study emerged from a chance meeting with Dr Matt Hobbs, of the University of Canterbury.

Canterbury's GeoHealth Laboratory has collated detailed information on Aotearoa New Zealand's physical environment, mapping both “health promoting” features such as green spaces and “health constraining” activities such as liquor outlets.

At the same time, Mr Bowden has been working with the Statistics News Zealand's Integrated Data Infrastructure, a huge national research database of Government-collected information on individuals. Among other information, this captures data on mental health service use.

The pair realised that merging the two sets of data would enable them to connect individual health outcomes to physical locations.

“We realised we could link people to the environments they are living nearby. And then it would be fascinating to have a look at that in relation to mental health.”

Mental health is one of the biggest health challenges facing New Zealand, with one in four young people experiencing a mental health issue before they turn 18. Inequities in mental health issues and care are persistent and worsening, with Māori and Pasifika over-represented.

The project team is spread across Otago, Canterbury and Auckland universities and includes a strong group of Māori and Pacific researchers.

“Our first goal will be to look at the overall association between the environment and mental health. We will then start to look at Māori and Pasifika specific analyses to see if those results hold true for Māori and Pasifika or if they have a different interaction with the environment.”

Mr Bowden was unaware of any studies of a similar scale elsewhere in the world: “We're really lucky to have these national data sets all linked together so I think it will be a first in terms of looking at a national population of young people.”

The project is expected to take two years and it is hoped the results will help improve health-enhancing environments and inform subsequent research to develop culturally specific environmental measures to reflect health-enhancing environments for Māori and Pasifika.

“Another strength of this research team are some really good connections to community groups and health providers. We think we're going to be able to get these people around the table and advocate for some meaningful change.”

The research team:

University of Otago: Dr Reremoana Theodore (Psychology), Troy Ruhe (Centre for Pacific Health), Dr Jesse Kokaua (Centre for Pacific Health, Va'a o Tautai); University of Canterbury: Dr Matt Hobbs (Health Sciences), Dr Lukas Marek, Dr Jesse Wiki (GeoHealth Laboratory); University of Auckland: Associate Professor Barry Milne (Centre of methods and policy application in the social sciences), Dr Hiran Thabrew (Psychological Medicine).


Associate Professor Sarah Hetrick, Principal Clinical Advisor, Suicide Prevention Office, Ministry of Health. Co-theme lead of Resilient Teen theme, University of Auckland; Professor Barry Taylor, Paediatrician, Women's and Children's Health, University of Otago; Professor Joseph Boden, Director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study, University of Canterbury.

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