A new University College London study has shown that people with a strong fear of crime are almost twice as likely to show symptoms of depression. The research, based on data taken from the Whitehall II study*, also shows that fear of crime is associated with decreased physical functioning and lower quality of life.
The study's lead author, Dr Mai Stafford, UCL Epidemiology & Public Health, said: "Very broadly, these results show that if your fear of crime levels are higher, your health is likely to be worse -- particularly your mental health.
Of course, you might expect that people who are depressed or frail might be more afraid of crime and venturing out of doors, so we have taken account of previous mental health problems and physical frailty and adjusted for those accordingly. Even with a level playing field, the data still demonstrates this strong link between fear of crime and poorer mental health.
"What's also key here is that the 6,500 participants were not very elderly -- they were all aged between 50 and 75, many were still working, and they're generally a pretty healthy group of people. Overall, the data strongly suggests not simply that people who are vulnerable due to their health or age are more frightened, but that being frightened of crime is in itself contributing to their poor mental health and quality of life."
Alongside a comprehensive medical examination, study participants were asked to report on how worried they felt about crime. They rated their concern on a scale from 'not worried' to 'very worried', about particular events happening in their neighbourhood: their home being broken into, being mugged or robbed, their car being stolen or things being stolen from the car, and being raped.
The researchers then compared the results with data collected about their mental and physical health -- symptoms of anxiety and depression, physical function, and quality of life. After adjusting for age, gender, employment grade, length of residence and previous mental health status, researchers found that participants with a high fear of crime were 1.93 times as likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and 1.75 times as likely to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, than those reporting low fear of crime. These people exercised less, saw friends less often and participated in fewer social activities compared with less fearful participants.
Dr Stafford explains that: "Things that influence our behaviour influence our health. One behavioural response to fear of crime is avoidance, so in this case fear of crime may stop some people taking part in the physical and social activities that are so good for health and wellbeing. If you are fearful, you are less willing to go out socially and less inclined to take physical activity. This impacts heavily on people's mental health and overall quality of life, as well as having an impact on their physical health, albeit less pronounced. It seems likely that if we work to reduce fear of crime, we could actually improve people's health."
Commenting on the findings, Professor Gloria Laycock, UCL Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, said: "Research does suggest that irrespective of recorded crime levels, public perceptions are that crime is on the increase. Even though data from the British Crime Survey (BCS) shows that crime has fallen in the last decade, people believe that crime is rising -- around two in three people believe that crime nationally has increased in the last two years and two in five people think that crime in their local area has increased.
"It is very interesting that people's perceptions of overall crime remain out of kilter with the figures and that these perceptions could actually have a significant impact on health. We must do more to educate people about the realities of their vulnerability to crime, as well as taking action to reduce fear of crime on a local and national level. For example, we need to look at the ways in which crime is reported in the national and local press and be sure to avoid sensationalism."
The paper 'Fear of Crime and Mental Health & Physical Functioning' was published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.
*The 'Whitehall II' study originates from the first Whitehall study of 18,000 men in the Civil Service, set up in 1967. The first Whitehall study showed that men in the lowest employment grades were much more likely to die prematurely than men in the highest grades. The Whitehall II longitudinal study was set up to determine what underlies the social gradient in death and disease and to include women.
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