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Feeling Safe in an Unsafe Neighborhood Can Decrease Psychological Stress


Perceptions of safety affect a person’s psychological state. If someone feels threatened or fearful, they may have increased levels of anxiety. If someone feels safe and protected, they may have high levels of self-confidence and feel more independent than someone that feels unsafe. The community in which a person lives can have a large impact on their mental well-being. People who live in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods are at increased risk for many negative outcomes, including drug abuse, relationship problems, violence, unwanted pregnancy, and depression. In fact, existing research has demonstrated a clear link between depression or anxiety and the environment in which a person resides. In particular, people living in communities in which they feel unsafe are more likely to have poor mental health outcomes than those in safer communities.

Until now, no study has looked at contributing factors that could increase or potentially protect individuals in unsafe neighborhoods from anxiety or depression. To accomplish this, Jaime Booth of the School of Social Work at Arizona State University led a study that examined isolation, powerlessness, and mistrust as predictors of feeling unsafe or safe in a sample of 4,196 participants. The results revealed that the more unsafe someone thought their neighborhood was, the worse they fared psychologically. Lack of safety was directly related to increased distress.

When Booth looked at the three secondary factors, the findings suggested that the distress from feeling unsafe could be enhanced or diminished. All three factors of powerlessness, mistrust, and isolation directly increased feelings of psychological stress. However, when participants reported high levels of trust, social support, or empowerment, they had lower levels of psychological stress. This suggests that increasing these domains in high risk individuals could lessen their feelings of helplessness, regardless of how safe their neighborhood is. “Understanding specific neighborhood factors that impact mental health enabled us to design more effective interventions and is crucial to addressing mental health disparities,” said Booth. The results of this study are one more in the continual pursuit of that goal.

Booth, Jaime, Stephanie L. Ayers, and Flavio F. Marsiglia. Perceived neighborhood safety and psychological distress: Exploring protective factors. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 39.4 (2012): 137-56. Print.

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  • Brynn January 14th, 2013 at 3:07 PM #1

    So this all sounds fine and dandy but tell me this- how are you supposed to feel safe in an area where you know is not really sdafe unless you are packing heat, and then that only adds to the level of heightened anxiety and tension? I am okay with being able to talk yourself through a situation, or maybe if you have someone with you familiar with the area to comfort you, but my thoughts are so jumbled on this that it just doesn’t make any sense. I feel tense sometimes when I KNOW the neighborhood, much less when I am in unfamiliar territory. I guess there are ways to get through it, but I am generally too chicken to talk a walk on the wild side like that. If I know that a place is going to cause me to have this kind of fear, then I am probably just going to avoid it altogether.

  • Earthling January 14th, 2013 at 11:55 PM #2

    “when participants reported high levels of trust, social support, or empowerment, they had lower levels of psychological stress.”

    This proves community participation is important. Its uncommon to be aware of your neighbors’ names now. We are losing that sense of social support and a sense of community now and I am not surprised more and more people are now feeling unsafe.

  • Jameson January 15th, 2013 at 3:47 AM #3

    You want people to lie to themselves and tell themselves, it’s okay this place is safe when it isn’t? Because that’s what this kind of suggests to me. That isn’t making real change

  • Casey January 15th, 2013 at 1:05 PM #4

    Of course I’m gonna feel safe in a safe environment and unsafe in an unsafe one.Theres just no getting away from it is there?The question is – how do you improve the safety aspect of your neighborhood?Because just closing your mind to the dangers may not be the wisest thing after all!

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