, Volume 47, Issue 7, pp 1159-1167
Date: 24 Aug 2011

The association of African Americans’ perceptions of neighborhood crime and drugs with mental illness

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Many African Americans are socioeconomically disadvantaged and live in neighborhoods containing chronic sources of stress. Although environmental stressors can contribute to the development of mental illness, there is a paucity of national studies examining the association of neighborhood crime and drug problems with psychiatric disorders. This study aims to determine if higher levels of perceived neighborhood problems are associated with greater prevalence of 12-month and lifetime psychiatric disorders among African Americans.


To do so, we used cross-sectional data from the National Survey of American Life, which interviewed a nationally representative sample of 3,570 African Americans.


Of these African Americans, nearly 20 and 40% reported that crime and drug use are problems in their neighborhoods, respectively. Respondents reporting high levels of perceived neighborhood crime or drug problems are 1.5–2.9 times more likely to have a 12-month psychiatric disorder and 1.4–2.1 times more likely to have a lifetime psychiatric disorder compared to the other respondents. After accounting for sociodemographics and chronic disease, neighborhood crime remains associated with 12-month mood, 12-month substance use, and lifetime substance use disorders, whereas neighborhood drug problems remain significantly associated with 12-month and lifetime anxiety and substance use disorders.


Among African Americans perceived neighborhood problems are widespread and positively associated with psychiatric disorders. Consideration of neighborhood context is important to more comprehensively understand mental illness and its treatment in this population.