Your Neighborhood Could Be Harming Your Mental Health

CDC study finds New Bedford, Massachusetts has highest proportion of mental health issues in the nation

What to Know

  • New data from the CDC's "500 Cities" project shows that where you live can have a huge impact on wellness.
  • New Bedford had the largest percentage of people in the U.S. reporting they'd had a mental health issue during 14+ of the last 30 days.
  • Nearly one in four residents in New Bedford are living in poverty.

The cold cement steps at St. Therese's in New Bedford, Massachusetts, is where Steve Viveiros hit bottom. With a little roof, the alcove outside the front door allowed him to sleep sheltered from the weather.

Long closed, St. Therese's, a small brick church on Acushnet Avenue, was where Viveiros received his first Holy Communion.

"Asking myself why. Why me? I'm a good person," Viveiros recalled.

The U.S. Navy veteran said he returned home from his tour in Iraq in 2005 suffering PTSD and feeling lost.

"In the military, it's kill or be killed and then you come back to civilian life and it's like, what's next," he said.

Viveiros turned to alcohol to numb the pain and watched his life unravel. His marriage fell apart. His sons pushed away. He moved to cocaine, pills, and then heroin and homelessness.

"I felt like the devil was winning," he said. "I was playing by his rules. He had me by the throat."

The devil's grip is just one slip away for many of the men he now lives with at the Veterans Transition House, each staring down their own demons.

According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the men at the Veterans Transition House are not alone in their struggle in New Bedford.

The NBC10 Boston Investigators and health reporter Kristy Lee examined the new data from the CDC's "500 Cities" project, which burrows down to Census tracts in 500 American cities to show how specific neighborhoods fare across a range of health metrics, from a community’s mental health to obesity and exercise to unhealthy behaviors such as binge drinking, smoking, and lack of sleep.

The data shows that where you live can have a huge impact on wellness.

The Mental Health Gap

Source: CDC, Census Bureau
Credit: Sam Hart/NBC

New Bedford, Massachusetts, according to the data, had the largest percentage of people in the country reporting they'd had a mental health issue during 14 or more of the last 30 days.

Chatting with clients at the Sister Rose soup kitchen, Reverend Dave Lima sees need all across the city.

In its heyday, New Bedford was a major whaling and trade port. But as industry dwindled, Lima said the loss of jobs, high housing costs, and opioid epidemic all have eroded the economy.

"Depression, anxiety, you know, do I have the ability to feed my family," he asked.

It's a tale of two cities: the cobblestoned, re-gentrified downtown tucked among hard-scrabble neighborhoods in need.

The median household income in New Bedford is about half the rest of the state—$40,626 compared to $74,167 in Massachusetts.

Nearly one in four residents are living in poverty. Sixty percent rent instead of own their homes.

And at least six percent—double the state average—don't have health insurance.

"People aren't accessing help," Lima said. "Some of the people don't know. Some they don't know how to reach out, how to ask. Some people don't trust."

Lima also heads the Greater New Bedford Suicide Prevention Coalition and said the area has seen an alarming spike in suicides, up nearly 60 percent in one year from 17 in 2017 to 27 last year.

"I wish I had an answer," Lima said. "I wish I had that much wisdom. I wish somebody did. We don't know."

And he believes there is no one answer.

"If there were, we'd be able to pinpoint it and work at it. Again, it's about reaching people where they are," he said.

The 500 Cities Project showed that Newton, 50 miles away in MetroWest, had the lowest percentage of people reporting persistent mental health issues in the state.

Lima said it's not that people don’t struggle with mental illness in Newton. The difference is it's a wealthier community.

"A community that has more means has more of an ability to bring those means to bear," Lima said. "We have to give people an opportunity to see they don’t have to stay where they are."

Steve Viveiros has gotten that opportunity through charity, the Veterans Transition House.

"This place is saving my life," he said.

He is three months clean, has a good job and has reunited with his children.

"I want to be the father that I can be," he said. "I have a chance now."

New Bedford has launched a number of programs to address issues that can affect mental health, from homelessness and housing programs to opioid outreach teams that try to visit every person that has overdosed.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting 'Home' to 741741.

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