Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Neighborhood Effects, Mental Illness and Criminal Behavior: A Review

Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Neighborhood Effects, Mental Illness and Criminal Behavior: A Review

Article excerpt


This paper briefly reviews the social science on "neighborhood effects" as an independent force in shaping poor outcomes, specifically mental illness and criminal behavior, before discussing the implications of that research for understanding the relationship between neighborhoods, race and class. Neighborhood effects research has proliferated in recent years with extensive attention again being focused on the social context of family and individual development and life course. Moreover, recent work has suggested the need to consider the developmental effects of neighborhoods that persist across life-span. This paper will focus specifically on mental illness and criminal behavior as outcomes for understanding neighborhood effects, but will also consider what the structural causes of individual behavior and functioning mean for clinical assessment, especially forensic assessment.

Keywords: death penalty, neighborhood effects, race, poverty, criminal behavior, mental illness

1. Introduction

Neighborhood effects research, using an expansive array of data and analyses, has made significant strides in the last twenty-five years (Raudenbush & Sampson, 1999). The relationship between neighborhoods and poor mental and physical health, although studied for decades (Fans, 1939, Reprinted 1965), now more clearly and strongly links neighborhoods to mortality, heart disease, cancer, low birth weight, infant mortality, childhood illnesses, asthma, depression, anxiety, smoking, diet and nutrition, hypertension, heart disease, suicide, accidental injuries, lead exposure, and numerous other illnesses (Roux & Mair, 2010; Morenoff & Lynch, 2004). Research on the association of family and neighborhood characteristics with delinquency and crime also began more than seventy-five years ago, reaching conclusions about the fundamental role of family life and neighborhood in behavioral problems that have been confirmed over the decades since (Glueck & Glueck, 1950; Healy & Bronner, 1936; Sampson & Laub, 1993; Shaw & McKay, 1969). Nevertheless, serious research issues remain concerning both how to measure neighborhood effects and how to interpret results that suggest associations (Roux, 2008; Oakes, 2004).

Recently, Sampson (2008) articulated an important conceptual framework for understanding the mechanisms by which neighborhoods effect individuals (Sampson, 2008). This framework argues for a dual import to neighborhoods: first, as the situational context of family and individual life - which has long been how neighborhoods are viewed (Bronfenbrenner, 1977); but second, as influencing the developmental and enduring early life course that shapes long-term development, behavior and health throughout the life of the individual regardless of subsequent neighborhood stability or individual mobility (Sampson, 2008). In considering outcomes such as mental illness and criminal behavior, this dual framework suggests important possibilities for understanding and preventing illness and crime, and therefore, is also important for clinical and forensic neuropsychiatrie practice.

In this paper, we first briefly review some of the research related to neighborhoods and mental health in adults and children. We next focus more specifically on the research related to psychosis, child abuse and witnessing violence, neurotoxicant exposure and finally criminal behavior. As discussed throughout these sections, issues of race/ethnicity and poverty are interwoven into the research findings, but we also address more directly race and class and neighborhoods in considering the pathways and mechanisms by which neighborhoods may be associated with these outcomes.

2. Mental Illness and Neighborhoods

Historically, mental illness has been seen as a condition of the individual alone. Individuals, rather than families or communities, are diagnosed with mental illnesses, except in certain rare disorders, like shared delusional disorder, where several individuals, or even a community may suffer shared psychiatric symptoms. …

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