The Self in the City

The Self in the City
7th November 2017 Tess Hudak

This blog by Donna Hayter expresses concerns about a hostility directed at vulnerable people, especially those experiencing homelessness, through government policies, and a too common lack of compassion in our society today. It aims to highlight the psychological impact of these hostile attitudes and policies, combined with the anonymity, stress and hostility of city life that people from all walks of life encounter. How does urban life affect our mental health and well-being today, and how does this relate to the experience of homelessness in the city?

Alongside recent government promises of spending millions on ‘the problem of homelessness’ – there exists the contradictory reality of numerous other policies which have attacked the prospects and security of the UK’s poorest people. A systematic destruction of the services designed to help people who are financially or emotionally vulnerable has been taking place since 2010, alongside the continuation of a narrative which blames the poor for their vulnerable position.

I’m sure many readers of this blog will be familiar with the criticism of funding cuts to, for example, mental health services, social networks, public spaces and education, as well as the looming disaster of housing benefits cuts and changes to welfare systems.

(e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/13/tories-homelessness-crisis-rough-sleeping-universal-credit)

Economic vulnerability looks like it will be affecting increasing numbers of people, considering the fact that lending and consumer debt has grown by over 18 billion in the last year.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that austerity measures combined with a demonisation of the poor would lead to an increase in personal debt, making individuals and the national economy more vulnerable. Subsequently even more people will be at risk of homelessness.

Those who do become homeless face increasing vulnerability and hostility in everyday life, in surprisingly callous systematic ways (e.g. see http://www.e15report.org.uk/).  There are stories of councils attempting to effectively evict people from their borough by providing one way train tickets, and people being ‘shopped’ by apparently confidential services that are expected to impartially attend to their health and wellbeing, including some well-known homeless service providers – with GP’s being pressured to do the same.

This abundance of harsh policies and uncompassionate attitudes creates a tense psychological atmosphere of danger, hostility, detachment and fear.  All of us, especially people currently or at risk of becoming homeless, must experience an increasing difficulty in trusting the motives of others, and in valuing and caring for the self within a culture of this nature. What are the consequences for our emotional and physical health, especially for those who are already fragile for personal and/or social reasons?

Urban Life and the Urban Brain

Stress in the City is a study which ranked cities in order of least to most stressful places to live.

It looked at factors (such as debt, perceived security, unemployment, pollution, and traffic) that are understood as having a negative impact on mental health, as well as things like the lack of green space or sunshine hours which are thought to be good for mental health – London was ranked 70th out of 150 cities studied.

The metropolis, or cityscape, embodies an economic and social system that fails people dramatically – it’s where we live with the reality of competition, unfairness, threat, vulnerability and blame. It’s the place where we have all at some time experienced loneliness and alienation, hostility, anonymity and selfishness to some degree. I’m sure that as you’ve been reading about the rejections and violence of the policies described above, the scenery you’ve imagined is urban. When we think of homelessness, we imagine the city. I’m concerned about the psychological burden that people experiencing homelessness will likely be struggling with in this environment.

The Urban Brain Lab is a research group who seek out the connections between the social interactions and physical spaces experienced by urban citizens, with their embodied neurological experience – and especially how this relates to mental health. One of their key papers, Living well in the Neuropolis, describes the goals of the project and traces the brief but complex history of social science research into the relationship between urban life and mental health. From Georg Simmel’s arguments in 1903 in The Metropolis and Mental Life about how the nervous system struggles with the fast pace and onslaught of imagery and stimulation of the city as opposed to the slower flow and routine of rural life; to Stanley Milgram’s 1970 work on how cities dictate the nature of social interaction, private-life and community, and how the city and it’s residents together create vulnerability, alienation and anonymity. The Urban Brain Lab “…suggest that, by the 1980’s, the idea that the physical and political contours of urban space shape the interior world of city dwellers was well established.” They assert that “the encounters experienced by those who live in urban environments (of many sorts) actually moulded their interior worlds, leaving durable impressions upon their souls.” (p.227)

These ‘impressions’ may involve a continual assessment of threat. Research has found that when people are looking at urban scenes, the parts of their brains associated with evaluating danger were activated. Living well in the Neuropolis describes an ‘urban brain’ which is shaped directly by its interaction with the environment.

The Urban Brain Lab wants to bring together investigations in sociology, psychiatry and neuroscience to work with policy makers, urban planners and related professionals to figure what kind of city can be created that structurally incorporates considerations of mental health within its planning, and understands the city as a geographical and psychological space.

Naming the city a Neuropolis is a call to action, for academics and political actors to recognise the relations between the body and the city, and the brain within the body – and that inhabiting the city means inhabiting a space which “composes relations among developing brains, sick bodies, internal maps, stressed citizens and toxic spaces.” (p. 232) Their desire is to create a Good City and to imagine how we can begin to live well there, and make the most of the benefits of living closely with other citizens.

So, if we bring together in our minds the various aspects of what is happening when we reside in the urban environment, and in particular what might be happening if we are economically or emotionally vulnerable, or as someone experiencing homelessness, what can we imagine?

We can all empathise with and recall the impact of crowds, noise, traffic, pollution, and anonymity of the city upon our stress levels, our physical health, our bodies and emotions.  We can likely all recall a time when it felt as though everyone was just too busy to care about how we were, a time that we felt ignored or insignificant, or out of control. We may not all find it so easy to empathise with others if we frame their lives only in terms of the difficult situation they find themselves in currently, if we have not experienced this exact situation ourselves. But if we start with our shared experience of the stresses of urban life, we can surely be capable of an increased compassion in the city, and a deeper empathy for others?

I’m considering how we can find a route into increased empathy by considering the accumulation of all of these pressures: the imprint of stress on bodies and minds from personal experiences; the impact on our nervous systems of city dwelling, of poverty, the political framing of the poor, of the homeless as a ‘problem’ in need of eradication, of a political system which increasingly demonstrates a lack of compassion for vulnerable people. Our resilience, self-assurance and available options for self-care will obviously vary depending on experiences had and skills learned early in life.  However, most of us will likely empathise with how you may psychologically inhabit a city during emotionally challenging times; a city crammed full of distractions from pain as we attempt to sooth ourselves temporarily, over and over again; urban life as full of examples of hostility and barriers to self-care – coming from each other, from pollution and deprivation, from No.10.

If we begin with understanding, I am excited about the potential for the city to be the place where networks of support, connection, understanding and empathy can thrive, as there are already many examples of this happening in history and all around us every day.

Donna Hayter

Donna is an aspiring artist and social scientist who has published work in the history and ideology of psychology – she works in the charity sector and is currently enjoying volunteering for the Museum of Homelessness.

Image (ASBO: MoH Collection. See video here)

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