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Mental Health, Migration and the Megacity

Large Logo - TransparentSince the late nineteenth century urban transformation has been associated with mental illness. But questions around the specificity of the relationship – why does mental illness cluster in cities? What are the relations of urban poverty, deprivation, overcrowding, social exclusion, racism, and violence to mental distress? What biological and sociological mechanisms might be at stake? – have continued well into the twenty-first century. Research has identified key phenomena that tie mental illness and the social lives of cities together: among the factors most consistently identified are migration, density and stress: migrants into cities bear a disproportionately large share of the burden of urban mental illness; dense living conditions exacerbate the problem; and the general stress and precarity of urban living create the psychosocial basis for the development of clinical problems.

But there is a series of interdisciplinary and comparative questions which need to be addressed if we are to intervene effectively:  first, we know that the relationship between urbanicity and mental illness results from a complex intertwining of biological, psychological and sociological factors. But we have only a very limited understanding of how, precisely, they relate. Partly because of the estrangement of the qualitative social sciences from the psychiatric and epidemiological sciences, there is very little close-up sociological or anthropological data informing epidemiological and psychiatric research design, and/or contributing to our understanding of the relationship between mental health and specific forms of urban life as such. Second, since it emerged in the nineteenth century, research on the relations between urbanicity and mental disorder has focused on the industrial cities of North America and Europe, and has paid strikingly little attention to the global diversity of urban experience. In 2016, we know virtually nothing about the consequences of the specific sociology of such a major and expanding city as Shanghai for the mental health of its citizens, and hence on the best ways to untangle and counter the relations between migration, poverty and intergenerational cycles of poor mental health. 

The project is composed of four work packages (WP): WP1) Understanding migrants mental health in contemporary Shanghai through systematic review and synthesis of literature; WP2) Developing nuanced understanding of Shanghai migrants’ daily life experience and how it relates to mental health issues through ethnographic field work; WP3) Constructing a sociological deep surveying instrument for mapping migrant mental health in Shanghai by combining knowledge from WP1 and WP2; WP4) using biological and mobile technologies to measure stress (cortisol awakening response and daily profile), and the daily urban materialities surrounding migrants.

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