Researcher studies effects of local environments on mental health disorders

Temple researcher studies effects of community environments on people living with mental illness.

A researcher in the College of Health Professions and Social Work recently studied the relationship between communities and environments and their effect on people with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

Chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Mark Salzer’s research focuses primarily on the community participation, well-being and recovery of people with mental illnesses, as well as trying to understand their experiences through the “lens of mental illness.”

“Typically I’ll look at people who are in the public mental health system, so these are poor people primarily,” Salzer said.  “There’s always been an interest in looking at whether or not environments produce mental illnesses.”

In a study completed several years ago by the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion of Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities, where Salzer is the director, it was determined that people living in Philadelphia with serious mental illness are often concentrated in certain parts of the city, a term known as “psychiatric ghettoization.”  It has not yet been proven why this occurs, but the suspicion is that people flock to where the affordable housing is located, including North Philadelphia.

Salzer said he found there was less “recovery” in these communities, meaning feeling good about life despite having a mental illness.

“We found a relationship that the more social problems, crime and broken down houses did have an impact on their life, but it wasn’t as big as we thought it would be,” Salzer said.

According to, close to 250,000 mentally ill people are homeless, and that number has been rising since the 1970s.

Salzer said he found that people with serious mental illnesses were more likely to live in communities where they would be exposed to more physical inadequacies such as boarded up windows and broken glass.

“We did find that people with serious mental illnesses were more likely to be in these communities with less desirable characteristics that would lead us to think it would have an effect on their lives,” Salzer said.

These environments trigger increased isolation and limit mobility for those suffering from mental illnesses, Salzer said, in addition to loneliness and not participating in the community. Community participation is important for mental health, Salzer said.

In another study, Salzer said he wanted to see if mentally ill people living in low-income communities had less access to public services such as grocery stores, recreation and religious services.  The study found that mentally ill people tended to live closer to these resources in comparison to the general population, which surprised Salzer.

Although it has not been proven that environment can cause a mental illness, things like weather and severe climates can affect the amount of students seeking counseling.

Director of Psychological Services Catherine Panzarella said dramatic change in the weather can trigger seasonal affective disorder in students, causing a decrease in productivity.

When the weather increases severity, for example the Polar Vortex, Psychological Services often sees an increase in people seeking counseling.

“Weather definitely does affect people’s moods, and people differ a lot in their resilience to it,” Panzarella said.

Logan Beck can be reached at

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