Traffic, construction, loss of open spaces… it is becoming stressful

According to psychologists over-development, traffic congestion, overpopulation and the lack of open spaces are having a toll on the nation’s well-being

Instead of a respite, walking in Malta might be contributing to the increased probability of psychosis
Instead of a respite, walking in Malta might be contributing to the increased probability of psychosis

Over-development, traffic congestion, overpopulation and the lack of open spaces are having a toll on the nation’s well-being, according to psychologists.

These modern-day ills are being cited as constant stressors in the daily life of clients who resort to counselling sessions.

Psychologists who spoke to MaltaToday said the construction and population booms Malta is experiencing are perennial topics of conversation chosen by patients.

"My clinical experience has always shown me that one can never talk about cause and effect when talking about anxiety and depression but rather about multiple stressors that overwhelm the person’s capacity to deal with life,” Roberta Farrugia Debono said.

She is the president of the Malta Chamber of Psychologists and Family Therapists, which last week raised the importance of green spaces to mental well-being.

“I cannot say that any person has pinpointed the cause of their stress to be solely environmental degradation but yes, clients are more and more talking about the impact that the increased urbanisation and traffic are having on their stress levels,” she said.

Farrugia Debono said that more often than not, she suggests walking as an antidote to increasing stress but patients tend to come back with the retort: “Walking? It’s hardly relaxing with the traffic and noise pollution in my area.”

Other clients who are able to travel abroad mention that they realise what a difference it makes to their stress levels to be able to travel to places where there is more greenery.

Instead of a respite, walking in Malta might be contributing to the increased probability of psychosis.

A study carried out in 2010 on population density risk factors for psychosis found that urban stress such as noise, pollution, environmental degradation, a small genetic pool, social fragmentation and immigration — all endemic ingredients in current Malta — contribute to urban stress.

The study, conducted by Malta Association of Psychiatry President Nigel Camilleri and others, found that the number of newly-admitted patients with psychosis was larger in overpopulated and overdeveloped areas in Malta.

Back then, Senglea, situated in the Southern Harbour area, was the most densely populated town in Malta with 22,744 persons per sq.km.

The study found that the number of patients newly-admitted to hospitals with psychosis was higher in that area.

The number of new patients there was 32 in 2010, compared to the less populated and greener Western area with just eight newly-admitted patients.

Other studies across Europe found similar results — a UK epidemiological study in 2006 concluded that the incidence of psychotic disorders in London was double that of Nottingham and Bristol.

A 1999 Swedish study found that urbanisation is associated with a 68–77% greater risk of developing psychosis.

“Malta’s rate is not as bad as London’s but it’s higher than that of Bristol. While it’s important to note that 50% of depression and anxiety is caused by genetic conditions, the other 50% is attributed to the environment. But the correlation is there — the higher the population, the urbanisation, the noise, the congestion, the higher the stressors; there is a causal pattern between urbanisation and mental disorder,” Camilleri said.

He added that immigration also contributes to increased psychosis and that the same 2010 study he conducted found that an approximate incidence of psychosis in irregular immigrants is 400 per 100,000 persons.

Camilleri cites risks of integration and trauma in their home country as exacerbating factors.

The Malta Chamber of Psychologists came out publicly extolling the importance of planting new trees and the preservation of green spaces.

“A quick look at anyone’s Facebook feed will give you a clear indication that people are becoming increasingly frustrated with the ongoing construction works and traffic problems. Not a day passes that someone doesn’t post something about this. In addition, we are witnessing an increased awareness of the impact that certain proposed developments would have on our already debilitated natural heritage,” Farrugia Debono said. She believes this new interest in environmental issues is significant and might lead to changes in our environmental consciousness in the long term.

“I do believe that urban planning should also factor in the psychological impact of the developments being proposed. A new psychology discipline is that of traffic psychology which studies the relationship between psychological processes and traffic behaviour,” Farrugia Debono said.

She added that studies by Cohen-Cline in 2015 and Wood in 2017 have said that there is a clear link between access to green spaces and increased depression, and that the number and size of green spaces had a positive impact on the mental well-being of the population.

With a 2018 survey revealing that youth mental health services in Malta lack continuity of care, with an absent 24/7 crisis intervention team and with stressful overpopulation and over-construction as risk factors, trees and the protection of the environment might be the only irreproachable measure.

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