ANU researcher James O’Donnell. Image: Supplied.
  • Close-knit neighbourhoods were found to have protected against loneliness, depression, and anxiety
  • Poor mental health was less likely to be reported among those who perceived their neighbourhoods to be more cohesive
  • The study included a survey of over 3,000 Australians across three waves from May to November 2020

“Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours” sang Barry Crocker almost thirty years ago.

The importance of having good neighbours is significant, and it could be argued to ring truer today than all those decades ago.

In an Australia-wide study conducted by the Australian National University (ANU), having good neighbours can stave off negative impacts on mental health.

Conducted over three waves between May and November 2020, more than 3,000 Australians were part of a nationally-representative longitudinal survey that found neighbourhood relationships and social connections were important for mental health:

“People generally are much less likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety and loneliness if they have positive perceptions of their neighbourhood social environments,” lead author Dr James O’Donnell said.

“Neighbourhood cohesiveness is a really important social glue; it keeps us connected and supports our wellbeing in everyday life and during a crisis. Everybody needs good neighbours. It is good for your health.”

Why would one write that it having good neighbours is more important now?

“Our study shows social connections protected against loneliness, depression and anxiety – especially during lockdowns.”

Dr James O’Donnell

Being cooped up inside your own home, whether a house, apartment or room, brought the world into a very different perspective:

“Given the way lockdowns shrink physical interactions with friends, colleagues and wider social networks and keep people at home, neighbourhoods potentially take on an even more prominent social support role,” said co-author Professor Kate Reynolds.

The supportive role was particularly clear during one of the harshest lockdowns in the world, Dr O’Donnell said of the second Melbourne lockdown: “… the association between the neighbourhood environment was even stronger, suggesting the protective effects of neighbourhoods were enhanced during lockdown.”

“The results suggest that during the second lockdown in Melbourne levels of depression increased by an average of 22 per cent and levels of loneliness by four per cent,” added Dr O’Donnell.

What can we do with this research?

Professor Reynold’s also noted that investment in the social infrastructure of local communities and social cohesion could bear dividends both for Covid and in the long run, “… [providing] an important mental health buffer…”.

For us who aren’t in the government and policy sphere, being a good neighbour could well start with “just a friendly wave each morning”, and growing relationships from there.

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