CHAMPAIGN — Neighborhood quality can make a big difference in the mental health of Black Americans – even more than relationship quality.
That’s according to a recent study by August Jenkins, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
“When you’re in a better relationship, you usually have better mental health. But there’s a lot of things in that association that we don’t understand, particularly for Black Americans.”
Jenkins analyzed data from a 10-year national survey of 333 people racialized as Black. The participants rated how safe they felt in their neighborhoods at night, and how supported they felt by their partner and more.
While other studies have found relationship quality does affect the mental health of African Americans within a shorter time window, Jenkins did not find that effect over 10 years.
How participants rated their neighborhoods seemed to matter more. It made sense to Jenkins that Black partners can’t be isolated from the context of structural racism they live in.
“One aspect of that context that’s really important for Black Americans is their neighborhood environment, because it’s such a strong mechanism of structural racism, and has direct impacts on romantic relationships, and also on psychological health and well being,” she said.
This builds on other research that housing segregation has a wide variety of health effects.
Jenkins also looked into how relationship and neighborhood quality interacted with each other. It did not seem to make a big difference for Black women, but Black men in supportive relationships and lower-quality neighborhoods were particularly distressed.
In her paper, she landed on a hypothesis that Black men feel responsible for providing for their partners and families.
“Black men that are in better relationships probably want to provide the best for their romantic partners, but being in this broader environment that is signaling stress interferes with their ideas of being able to provide that.”
University of Illinois human development and family studies associate professor Allen Barton said Jenkins’ paper shows high quality scientific work.
“She’s using the right analysis to answer her question and using appropriate techniques.”
Barton did not work on this study but has worked with Jenkins on other papers.
In his own work, Barton has found relationships can impact symptoms of depression over two years. He is interested in learning more about what is happening to participants’ moods between the two-year mark of his study and the 10-year span in Jenkins’.
“This is a really nice study for a lot of reasons. It’s scientifically really strong and has practical relevance. That’s what makes good science.”
Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter@amihatt.