How urban dwellers struggle to find mental peace as concrete jungles grow rampant

Since cities are home to many, it feels like it belongs to none

Delhi traffic jam Representational image | Reuters

The rate at which an ice cream melts under the scorching sun can hardly keep up with the pace of Indian urbanisation. Urbanisation in India is at its youth; it is headstrong and propelled by the optimism and impulsivity associated with its age. However, unrestrained and undirected urbanisation might affect the mental health of city dwellers and the benefits might reach only a fraction of the population for a short period of time, conveniently forgetting the rest.

The symptoms of it are already visible. Depression, aggression, fear, sadness, personality disorders, and substance abuse are found at increasing levels among the urban population. Around 600 million people or 40 per cent of the country's population will be urban dwellers by 2036 and contribute to 70 per cent of India's GDP, according to Auguste Tano Kouamé, World Bank's Country Director for India.

As continuous construction becomes the norm and green spaces dwindle in the concrete jungle, it will take a toll on people's mental health.

Tanvi Gotmare, a 21-year-old Mumbai resident and college student, says, "My neighbourhood was filled with trees once and I could see a green patch stretched over a large area from my window, but in recent years, buildings have taken this space up, resulting in less greenery, less ventilation and more polluted air. With all the construction taking place around you, whether its roads or buildings, the constant noise pollution takes a toll on you. The temperature has also risen to unbearable levels. This often frustrates me and even leads to anger issues sometimes as it can't be helped.”

Tanvi's experience shows how our environment affects our mental health. Water shortage and clogged sewage systems make the situation worse. And when more people relocate to cities, the strain grows, creating demand for more real estate and felling of more trees.

Traffic is another major factor that impacts mental health of city dwellers in several ways. The hours lost while commuting elevates stress and anxiety. And because of this, people find no time for relaxation and self-care, which are crucial for mental well-being.

Mugdha Mathur, a Delhi resident and college student, said her parents' long work hours and heavy traffic leave no time for spending quality time with family. Even when they have free time, navigating traffic to reach movie theatres and shopping malls becomes an obstacle, diminishing their enjoyment and discouraging them from going out. Weekends intended for leisure are sometimes lost to hectic work filled with intense competition.

Fast-paced lifestyles, demanding bosses and high work pressure can all contribute to decreased sleep, exercise and relaxation. Tanisha Mendes, a Bengaluru resident studying at the Christ (Deemed to be University), says, "Since I spent most of my life in Goa, I was used to a slow and calm life. But when I came to Bengaluru, everything is quick-paced. This has impacted my mental health in quite a few ways. I tend to be more anxious while I am in this city. I think the fast pace at which things are going on can sometimes be overwhelming. I seem to find everyone always onto something or the other."

Cities are a melting pot of cultures attracting people from various parts of the country but many find it difficult to fit into the community due to cultural differences, food habits, or language barriers. Feelings of isolation and lack of social support are associated with a decline in mental well-being.

Since cities are home to many, it feels like it belongs to none. So people do not feel the urge to protect what is around them, causing a breakdown of civil niceties. This apathy causes people to find comfort in their virtual worlds with thousands of 'friends' and unlimited dopamine hits, leading to a sense of disconnection despite improved mental health awareness through these very screens.

Creating equal opportunities for all and making sure that people from all walks of life have room for growth can narrow the gap between different sections of society. Dr Roy Abraham Kallivayalil, a professor of psychiatry at Pushpagiri Institute of Medical Sciences in Thiruvalla, Kerala, told THE WEEK, "Communities should be inclusive and government policies should include specific measures to take care of migrants, refugees and the poor. Vulnerable sections of the society like the elderly, the children, adolescents and women should be specially looked after."

He also focused on certain social aspects that need to be focused on to improve the mental health of people and said, "Poor education, unemployment and poverty are important social determinants of health and mental health. Hence, there should be opportunities for good education, job opportunities should be equitable, and poverty alleviation measures should be firmly in place."

Organisations and institutions in the city are also responsible for the well-being of its people. Implementing programs that increase mental health and fostering a work culture that values increasing mental well-being is a necessity. Having community events and adopting inclusive policies to accommodate everyone can go a long way in promoting a sense of belonging.

While urban dwellers are more aware and open about mental well-being, Dr Jayanti Sundar Rajan, a counsellor at Infosys Hyderabad, told THE WEEK that people in cities also do have a stigma surrounding conversations of mental health.

Systemic changes are necessary but there are some strategies that individuals can incorporate to improve their mental health. Dr Jayanti says she advocates a four-pronged 'M' approach to improve mental health: Movement, Mastery, Mindfulness, and Meaningful social connections. It involves breaking free from your comfort zone through physical and mental movement, keeping the mind active through mastering new skills, practising mindfulness to stay present, and prioritising real-world interactions to build stronger social connections.

Cities bring economic growth and unfathomable opportunities to people. But its cost to mental health should not be disregarded. Proper implementation of solutions at various levels can help create places that bring prosperity without compromising mental health. With planned urbanisation, we can prevent a crashing burnout.

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