The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Off the Rails in the Singles’ Neighborhood

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Hollywood depicts the single life as exciting and glamorous. No doubt many singles have enjoyed living without tethers or responsibilities. But what happens to a community when singles displace married couples?  A new study of the psychological well-being of individuals living in different kinds of neighborhoods in China should compel policymakers to ponder this question soberly. This study concludes that in neighborhoods short on married couples, mental-health problems abound.   

Though focusing on data collected in China, the new study involved scholars from universities in Brazil (the University of São Paulo) and the United States (Harvard, Columbia, and Boston Universities) as well as China (Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Peking University). This international team of scholars agreed to combine their expertise to assess the way “the rapid growth of urban areas in China in the past few decades . . . introduc[ing] profound changes in family structure and income distribution . . . [may have] affect[ed] mental health.”

In investigating the relationship between urban growth and mental health, the researchers focus on the characteristics of various urban neighborhoods, believing that because “neighbourhoods are responsible for the conditions in which people are born, grow, live and age . . . neighbourhood-level characteristics may represent both an important driver of mental health and an opportunity for prevention.”  

The two characteristics receiving particularly close attention from the researchers are neighborhood-level income and percentage of neighborhood residents who are married. The interest in neighborhood-level income requires no explanation: Virtually all social scientists care about people’s economic circumstances. But the researchers feel compelled to explain that their “focus on marriage was motivated by a previous study in China which found that being unmarried was associated with higher odds of having a mood disorder as well as with the severity of such disorders, possibly a manifestation of the importance of family-oriented life in Chinese culture.”

To trace the linkages between neighborhoods’ economic and marital characteristics and residents’ mental health, the researchers scrutinize data collected from 4,072 adult residents (ages 18 to 88) living in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. The researchers specifically look in the data for symptoms of internalizing disorders (such as depression and anxiety) and externalizing disorders (such as drug abuse or aggressive or antisocial behavior).  

These data surprise the researchers when they consider neighborhoods’ economic character: “Contrary to our expectations,” they confess, “living in a neighbourhood with a higher median income compared with the city median income was not significantly associated with lower odds either internalising or externalising of disorder [sic].” In other words, in this study “neighbourhood income does not in fact appear to be an important driver of mental health outcomes.”

But unmistakable patterns emerge in the data on neighborhoods’ marital character. Taking the marital status of individuals into statistical account, the researchers calculate that each one-point increase in neighborhood-level percentage of married residents translates into a 1% lowering of the likelihood of a resident’s having manifest symptoms of an externalizing disorder during his or her lifetime (p = 0.024). A parallel analysis finds that each one-point increase in neighborhood-level percentage of married residents lowers by 2% the likelihood of a resident’s having evinced (p = 0.008) an externalizing disorder during his or her lifetime. 

More provocative findings stand out when the researchers rank the neighborhoods in their study by percentage of residents who are married, so creating three comparison groups or tertiles. Statistically comparing the mental health of residents of these ranked neighborhoods, the researchers conclude that “individuals living in neighbourhoods in the top tertile of percentage of married residents had 54% lower odds of a past-year externalising disorder compared with those in the bottom tertile.”

As they reflect on their findings, the researchers tentatively reason that the patterns they identify in their data may indicate “a protective community effect of marriage, possibly through its effect on social cohesion.” Citing the social-control (or social-bond) theory widely used by criminologists, who see “traditional social relationships . . . buffer[ing] against externalising behaviour in the form of crime,” the authors of the new study assert that parallel logic would justify interpreting their findings as evidence of “communities of married families acting as a buffer against their residents developing externalising disorders such as substance abuse.”

Noting that in previous studies “living in a neighbourhood with more married individuals has been associated with higher neighbourhood satisfaction,” the researchers hypothesize that because married men and women are more politically engaged and enjoy more social support than single peers, they foster higher levels of “social cohesion” in their neighborhoods.  

Troubled that “mental disorders are a growing public health problem in China,” the researchers understand why “the government has recently taken steps to address the problem by creating hundreds of new psychiatric hospitals.” But these scholars recognize a need “to develop broad social measures for enhancing social cohesion.” The Chinese government has already moved in the right direction, they believe, by announcing “the end of the one-child policy.” Their analysis would seem to imply that, for the sake of China’s mental health, the time has come to also reduce the incidence of no-spouse adulthood.

The findings of this study deserve serious attention in other countries—from Argentina to Zambia—where mental pathologies multiply in neighborhoods short on married couples.

(Alexandre Dias Porto Chiavegatto Filho et al., “Neighbourhood Characteristics and Mental Disorders in Three Chinese Cites: Multilevel Models from the World Mental Health Surveys,” BMJ Open 7.10 [2017]: e017679, Web.)