Home-made blues: Residential crowding and mental health in Beijing, China

Blog post by Xize Wang and Tao Liu

16 Nov 2022, 9:43 a.m.
Xize Wang and Tao Liu

Mental health problems have become an emerging global concern, and China is no exception. For instance, a nationwide survey in China shows a 6.8% lifetime prevalence rate for depressive disorders. The pervasiveness of mental health issues has negative consequences for both individuals and societies. At the personal level, mental health is an important aspect of people’s well-being, and those with mental health issues normally have a lower quality of life. At the social level, mental health problems impose a high financial burden on society through medical expenses and productivity losses. Hence, improving the mental health status of urban dwellers would boost both their individual well-being and the fiscal sustainability of the public sector.

Housing, especially the provision of living space, is an important factor that policy makers can utilise to promote people’s mental health. Residential crowding, which normally involves either insufficient living space or lack of private space, lowers a person’s sense of control over their surroundings. A reduced sense of control is associated with high stress levels and a greater risk of depression (the “primary stressor” hypothesis). Residential crowding can also be associated with worse mental health by triggering increased life stress (the “secondary stressor” hypothesis). In addition, those living in a more crowded home may have a stronger association between life stress and depression, as they are less likely to heal from the cognitive fatigue brought about by life stress (the “moderator” hypothesis).

To test these hypotheses, we analysed survey data from 1,613 residents in Beijing, China from inner-city, urban, and suburban areas. Controlling for socio-economic factors and district fixed effects, we found that living in a crowded place — measured by both square meters per person and persons per bedroom — is significantly associated with a higher risk of depression. Specifically, we found that every 10 additional square meters per person is associated with a 27.7% lower probability of depression, and individuals with more than 1.5 persons per bedroom are 1.2 times more likely to have depressive symptoms than those with one or fewer persons per bedroom. We tested for the mechanism connecting residential crowding and depression, and our data support the “primary stressor” hypothesis over the other two hypotheses.

We also identified the following subgroups as having relatively stronger residential crowding–depression associations: (1) females, likely due to their affective, biological, and cognitive vulnerabilities; (2) those living with children, likely due to the mental fatigue generated from childcare duties; (3) those not living with parents, likely due to the fact that living with parents improves people’s “mental robustness”; and (4) residents of non-market housing communities, probably because they are less likely to be there by choice than residents in market housing neighborhoods.

Our findings show that inequality in living space among urban residents not only is an important social justice issue but also has health implications. China has experienced rapid urbanisation in the past few decades. Although the average living space has greatly improved, the distribution of living space has become more skewed. Policy makers should pay attention to the urban dwellers who were “left behind” in the housing boom and ensure they have sufficient living space. Public housing programs — whether sales or rental — that aim to provide sufficient floor area and room numbers for those in lower income brackets would not only ensure equity in living space but also offer mental health benefits.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category