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A recent study published in Nature highlights key characteristics that can support the mental health of young urban dwellers. The study, conducted by an international, interdisciplinary team, identified six priorities that city planners can adopt to create urban environments that are safe, equitable, and inclusive. These priorities include opportunities to build life skills, age-friendly environments, free and safe public spaces, employment and job security, interventions addressing social determinants of health, and urban design with youth input in mind.

Cities have long been a popular destination for young people, with urban environments influencing a wide range of health outcomes. Mental disorders are a leading cause of disability among young people globally, and exposure to urban inequality, violence, lack of green space, and fear of displacement can disproportionately affect marginalized groups, increasing the risk of poor mental health among urban youth. With cities projected to be home to 70 percent of the world’s children by 2050, investing in young people is seen as crucial for present well-being and future potential.

The study, led by Pamela Collins, MD, MPH, chair of the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recruited a panel of over 400 individuals from 53 countries, including young people ages 14 to 25 and experts from various fields. Through three sequential surveys, the panelists identified elements of urban life that would support mental health for young people, resulting in 37 characteristics grouped into six domains. These characteristics provide a comprehensive set of priorities for policymakers and urban planners to improve the mental health of young city dwellers.

Key priorities include youth-focused mental health and educational services to support emotional development and self-efficacy, investment in spaces that facilitate social connection to alleviate isolation, and creating employment opportunities and job security to address economic losses experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study emphasizes the need for investments across multiple sectors like transportation, housing, employment, health, and urban planning, with a focus on social and economic equity. It also highlights the importance of involving young people in the planning and design of interventions that impact their mental health and well-being.

The study began data collection in April 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing researchers to capture its possible impacts on youth mental health in cities. Panelists reported that the pandemic either highlighted existing inequalities in urban areas or confirmed preconceptions about how social vulnerability can impact health outcomes. The findings underscore the importance of systemic collaboration across sectors and the need to avoid exacerbating existing privileges through initiatives such as gentrification that may displace marginalized communities. Overall, the study provides a roadmap for creating mental health-friendly cities for young people, emphasizing the importance of addressing social and economic equity and involving youth in the planning process.

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