Establishing the council initiative on Mental Health and Urban Isolation caused some eyebrow raising amongst my council colleagues.
Mayor Don Iveson wasn’t one of them. “Great idea,” said the mayor, when we chatted in the early days of the term.
Depression, anxiety disorders and addiction were a focus of my writing during my time at The Edmonton Journal. I also wrote columns about the growing curse of urban isolation in modern cities.
So it seemed logical to bring those issues to civic leadership, even though health care is, strictly speaking, a provincial responsibility.
What Mayor Iveson understood instinctively is that City Hall is in the business of creating a healthy, prosperous and sustainable city, for this and future generations.
Relatively speaking, it’s still early days, so far as our understanding the silent epidemic of mental illness and loneliness in cities. Everything from noise, to materialism, to a shortage of green space is blamed.
What we know for sure is that mental illness and loneliness impact individual health, both physical and mental. Mental illness drives homelessness and addiction, as well as the escalating costs of dealing with their side effects, with police, paramedics, hospitals and shelters.
We also know that people with mood disorders, anxiety disorders and addictions tend to isolate themselves; that solation, in and of itself, is depressing. It’s a vicious and costly cycle to quality of life. Loneliness, research now shows, is as harmful to health as smoking or obesity.
So the Mental Health and Urban Isolation initiative was born (initiatives allow councillors to work with a small budget and a team from administration on issues of need). This past term, we’ve hosted numerous events to raise awareness around isolation and mental illness. I’ve done dozens of talks around my own journey relative to mental health. Note: I say ‘relative’ because we all have days of high stress or feeling the blues.
The initiative recently partnered with the Edmonton Public Library to bring in public health journalist Andre Picard of The Globe & Mail to share his investigations and thoughts on urban isolation. We’ve sponsored spoken-word poetry evenings on the subject of mental health and created a modest campaign focused around the idea that merely saying “Hello, how are you” to a stranger is a small but vital act of connection.
If re-elected, I’m hoping the initiative can dive deeper into how urban design, planning and civic services contribute to disconnection in cities. Front verandas are known to better connect neighbours. How can we encourage them? How do we design our public space so people are encouraged to meet and greet.
As the new Alex Decoteau Park in the downtown reveals, fenced off-leash areas in urban spaces are great for dog owners, too. We need to build more of them around the downtown and in Oliver.
Streetscape improvements make our mainstreets, like Jasper Avenue, more inviting. Heck, I've even seen perfect strangers high-five each other on the new bike network.
Scholars are beginning to study design and mental health seriously and think tanks have formed around the topic. We need to learn from the research and apply it on the ground in Edmonton. Strictly speaking, that work is called health care.
Cities can and must be involved.