by Tarah Hodgkinson
September marks suicide prevention month. Numerous events and strategies are popping up around the world from RU OK? Day in Australia to #Bethe1To in the United States. All of these strategies are attempting to address suicide and mental health.
In many of the neighbourhoods where we work, suicide and mental health is a common topic. Indeed, I spent time with a rural community a few weeks ago in which residents recounted the loss of several young lives to suicide. This has only been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 related to social isolation and financial insecurity. Fortunately, there are suicide prevention strategies that can make a difference.
Suicide prevention can take many forms. Target hardening approaches try to increase the effort to take one’s life in the hopes of saving lives by making suicide more difficult.
Some of these efforts include physical barriers, such as fencing on tall bridges to prevent jumping. Others are somewhat unintentional, such as removing carbon monoxide from domestic gas supplies in the UK that resulted in almost a 100% decrease in suicides by gas poisoning.
HOW, BUT NOT WHY
While these kinds of target hardening prevention strategies are useful, and often successful, they do not address the why of suicide. Suicide is often the last resort, an attempt to escape inconceivable pain and trauma. This pain and trauma do not occur in a vacuum but are influenced by a person’s mental health and their environment. One example is long-term mental health problems arising from adolescent bullying in the neighborhood. Another example is adverse childhood experiences within the family.
Clearly, suicide prevention can do much more than a marketing campaign to tell people to reach out, or by making suicide more difficult.
While the risk factors for suicide range from individual to ecological, there are numerous ways that we can make our neighbourhoods and communities more resilient to suicide. These include structural changes such as affordable and accessible housing and shelter, paying people a living wage, creating neighborhood opportunities for youth and the elderly and inexpensive access to health care including locally-based, mental health and trauma-informed care.
If we are to fully address and mitigate suicide, these structural changes are integral in the creation of a healthy neighborhood.
Healthy and liveable neighbourhoods, where people are connected, cohesive and cared for play an important role in improving mental health and preventing suicide. And we all have a role to play in that kind of prevention.
by Mateja Mihinjac
A couple of weeks ago a North American native man sat next to me while I was enjoying my lunch and observing the busy downtown street that had been pedestrianized during a special event in Saskatoon, Canada. I greeted him and asked how he was doing. This initial interaction led to a conversation I did not expect.
As we started chatting I soon learned he was homeless and unable to get back to his home on a First Nation’s Reserve, so he’s been sleeping in downtown streets. I offered him the rest of my lunch and a soda drink, which he accepted with gratitude.
Then he shared the words that touched my heart: “I’m just lonely.”
He explained that he often walks up and down the street to kill time, trying to get some money and just trying to survive. This day was no exception. He said he’s never seen this many people in this street, usually occupied with motor vehicles. Despite the business of the street, however, he felt lonely because he had no one to talk to. I felt honoured to have had a chance to make a connection with him and offer him what we often fail to show to street people: attention and respect.
It brought to mind two essential steps we have learned in SafeGrowth that underlie meaningful relationships and the ability to establish trust with those most vulnerable.
STEP ONE: ESTABLISH INITIAL CONNECTION
Years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow described the importance of human connection and sense of belonging in the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.
As social beings we have an innate need to connect with fellow humans and, in its absence, we crave social contact. Even more, loneliness has been identified as a growing health and social concern that reduces longevity and quality of life.
Yet, especially in public places, we often ignore opportunities for social bridges or are afraid to establish the connection because we feel too vulnerable, are distrustful of “strangers”, or we fear or stigmatize them. Some people vilify groups or individuals whose lives and choices they poorly understand without offering an opportunity to get to know them.
Establishing a connection with a smile and hello can be a simple initial step to building meaningful relationships. Some think this can be misinterpreted, but in truth, it isn’t difficult to be straightforward and honest.
STEP TWO: BUILD MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS
Meaningful relationships and human connectedness helped us survive in tribal communities and those same values can now help us survive and thrive in neighbourhood communities as well.
Our work in SafeGrowth hinges upon residents and local communities establishing trustful relationships and working together in common purpose - prerequisites for building the social glue for neighborhood problem-solving and change-making.
Having had a chance to live in different countries and meet people of various backgrounds I have learned to appreciate the importance of establishing connections with strangers. I make the effort to acknowledge, establish eye contact, smile or say hello to anyone I meet, regardless of their background or appearance.
Because of this I have been able to establish meaningful relationships in my personal and professional life, and am very fortunate to do so. I hope I will never have to say those three scary words: “I am lonely”. No one should.
by Tarah Hodgkinson
A colleague and I were discussing petty theft and property crime in his community. After consulting the community, we were told that very few people reported these incidents to the police. I asked him what he thought was going on with so many people experiencing petty theft from their property.
“It’s addiction” he responded.
This was not a new revelation. Research often finds that addiction is a driving factor for stolen property. We have discussed this a number of times in this blog.
However, the illness of addiction is rarely taken into account when convicting individuals who commit a crime just to get their next score. Consequently, the justice system becomes a revolving door for those battling substance abuse. Unable to obtain their drug of choice legitimately, they turn to illegitimate activities like petty theft, robbery or even the sex trade.
Many addictive substances like alcohol are legal and many alcoholics hold regular jobs and pay for their addiction without engaging in crime. But drug addicts who end up in criminal court are defined as burglars, robbers or sex workers. In reality, they are better defined as individuals living with substance abuse and very little support for addressing their addiction. Drug courts offer an alternative.
Drug courts take a public health approach to substance abuse disorder. All parties work together including lawyers, police, public health professionals, drug counsellors and members in the community. Unlike a traditional criminal court, drug courts are specifically focused on helping addicted offenders into long term recovery.
Drug courts are particularly important for marginalized populations that already suffer additional roadblocks on the road to recovery. While different drug courts have different configurations, they are gaining support around the world, such as in Canada, the United States and Australia.
Many crime prevention tactics in CPTED, for example, focus on preventing opportunities for property crime. However, if we don’t consider the social factors influencing some of these crimes, then those battling substance addictions merely find another way to feed their habit.
It’s easy to think that we just need harsher laws for drug use. But anyone who has dealt with addiction personally, or watched someone experience it first hand, knows that punishment and deterrence tactics rarely work.
Why do people get addicted in the first place? The answers are complex. While drug courts may not resolve every cause of addiction, they do offer a public health approach to what is largely a public health problem, not a criminal one.
by Mateja Mihinjac
In the previous blog I wrote about the issue of food access and underlying problems that stem from inequality. We have learned in our SafeGrowth work that there is a connection between inequality, food access and the conditions that create crime. In this blog I present three pillars that can transform food deserts into food oases and concurrently tackle socio-economic disadvantage and crime.
Physical accessibility is the first pillar. Local infrastructure and zoning should support access to affordable fresh food within half a mile of residential areas. Many disadvantaged neighborhoods are faced with urban obstacles rooted in socio-economic inequality and high levels of crime that fail to achieve this objective.
Importantly, new supermarkets will not in themselves shift deeply ingrained eating habits without providing nutritional education.
In addition to physical access, another challenge is insufficient knowledge about nutrition and the effects of eating habits on health.
Education about health-promoting eating patterns should complement physical food accessibility. The Design for America Healthy Food (Access) Project developed an innovative approach that provides helpful graphic food guidelines for shoppers.
The third pillar focuses on financial aspects. Encouraging providers of fresh and affordable foods to partner with locally owned stores, thereby investing in the local economy, is preferable to relying on large supermarket chains. One strategy to achieve this is Rossi and Brunori's proposals for public and private stakeholder partnerships.
Another report looks at New York public housing and suggests the housing authority should contribute towards food access and economic security by encouraging commercial development on the housing properties. This could be coupled with employing residents to drive both local economy and local governance. Echoing Jane Jacobs, mixed uses promote safety by increasing occupancy and human interaction.
LOCAL FOOD GOVERNANCE
Food access from a local perspective is gaining traction in food justice circles. Knowing that available resources and education strongly influence food purchasing habits, it is unquestionable that food deserts are not a simple solution solved with new supermarkets.
Food accessibility and food education at a scale that responds to local demands is one major step towards food oases and away from barren food deserts. In SafeGrowth we suggest such changes should be driven With and By local residents for a lasting change towards 21st Century neighborhoods.
by Mateja Mihinjac
During my recent visit to New York City, I was thrilled to witness the upsurge in cycling in this iconic city. As an avid cyclist, I love when cities provide infrastructure for bipedal commute.
Promoting physical and social connections through design, such as increased bike usage, fosters interaction and establishment of social ties. In SafeGrowth we know that this also influences safety and perception of safety.
New York City, the metropolis well known for its traffic congestion and yellow cabs, has followed the lead of several European and Australian cities and in the past decade expanded its cycling infrastructure. Cycling in the city has since 2005 increased by an astounding 260%, currently amounting to 450,000 daily trips.
In 2013, the city also introduced the nation’s largest bike sharing program Citi Bike, which currently offers 603 bike stations and 10.000 bikes across the city’s five boroughs. These bikes are extensively used by city dwellers and tourists alike.
Exploring Manhattan on a bike
CYCLING FOR HAPPINESS?
Replacing motorised commute with biking impacts health and social connectedness, two of the three most important contributors to happiness in urban environments.
Moreover, planning for environmentally sustainable cities that prioritize cycling and walking is intrinsically linked to socially cohesive communities.
IMPROVING CYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE
Talking to locals revealed that despite great progress, cycling infrastructure could benefit from several improvements. The first was more bike lanes and Citi Bike stations outside downtown and affluent areas, a common need in other cities.
Ironically, those living on the peripheries of the cities and those less prosperous are the ones who would most benefit from biking connectivity.
The second issue concerns safety. A 2015 article reported 90% of bike lanes in New York City were unprotected, meaning the majority were lanes without a safety buffer between cyclists and cars. This is surprising knowing that protected bike lanes can reduce the risk of injury by 90% and also increase ridership.
CYCLING FOR CITIES OF TOMORROW
Promoting cycling in progressive cities like New York is an excellent avenue for developing environmentally and socially sustainable cities. Planners should encourage future expansions of bike infrastructure in less affluent areas and designers must follow guidelines for safety and buffered lanes.
Designing future cities around cycling will contribute to overall healthier and happier cities.
More bikes means more eyes on the street. That can cut crime. Last week I spent time working with my Safe Cascadia friends in Eugene, Oregon, one of the most bike friendly cities in the country. Recently Eugene copied other bike friendly cities (Davis CA, Portland OR) by installing special bike traffic signals. They have also dedicated half a roadway to bike lanes.
Three thoughts come to mind.
1) From what I saw, Eugene cyclists seem unaccustomed to stopping at red lights. Police enforcement may become the new vogue (last year cops issued 114 tickets for bikes running stop lights and signs). Thousands of lost and stolen bikes already clog police evidence rooms. Clearly, bike enforcement is a growth industry.
2) Bike trails might also put illegitimate eyes on the street (drug dealers, burglars). Police rarely target bike criminals. Bike cops can do that but bike cops are an underfunded and small part of police patrol.
3) There are comments in an earlier blog about assaults on the Pinellas Trail in Florida. That 30-mile trail has added security features due to crime concerns.
All which leads me to ask: Could the design and siting of bike trails need more CPTED and security attention?
That's a rhetorical question.
In a November speech Gladwell describes Roseto in which one researcher:
"realized he’d stumbled on a place where the sense of community was so strong, and so powerful, and so supportive, that it enabled people who lived there to effectively deal with the stress of modern life and live a kind of magical life. They had created community bonds that were so extraordinary that they were able to overcome the pattern of illness and mortality in American life."
It is a great story. It is all about the very things most important to community developers, prevention specialists, police, and anyone else interested in safe places.
Gladwell is clearly an ally of what we are trying to achieve. Read Gladwell's speech HERE.