Residents of rat-infested neighborhoods are significantly more likely to suffer from depressive symptoms such as sadness and anxiety, according to a new study at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The researchers interviewed residents of low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore.
“Nobody likes living around rats. This study provides very strong evidence that rats are an underappreciated stressor that affects how people feel about their lives in low-income neighborhoods,” said study leader Danielle German, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Bloomberg School.
“The good news is it’s modifiable. If we can do something to reduce the number of rats in these neighborhoods, we can improve people’s well-being.”
While these same residents are also plagued by other pressing urban issues such as vacant housing, drug sales on the street, and the risk of being robbed and beaten up, the findings show that the relationship between rats and depression stands on its own.
Whenever researchers would talk to residents of low-income neighborhoods about the troubling public health issues they face, German said, they expected to hear about drugs and HIV and access to healthy food. But time and again, they heard about rats and trash, she says.
While many cities conduct a regular rat census or survey residents about urban conditions, this is one of the first studies to look at the psychological toll of hopelessly persistent rat problems.
For the study, German and Carl A. Latkin, Ph.D., a professor at the Bloomberg School, analyzed data taken from 448 Baltimore residents of low-income neighborhoods between March 2010 and December 2011 as part of a study designed to reduce drug and sex risk behaviors by addressing depressive symptoms.
The participants were mostly African-American (87.3 percent) with very low incomes. Just over half (54.9 percent) were male.
About half of the participants reported seeing rats at least once a week on their block and about 35 percent reported seeing them almost daily. Thirteen percent said they’ve seen rats inside their homes, and five percent reported daily or almost daily sightings in their homes. More than half said they believed that rats were the sign of a bad neighborhood.
Nearly 32 percent said they consider rats to be a big problem on their blocks. Among that group, 80 percent reported daily rat sightings on the block and 85 percent reported them in the neighborhood.
Significantly, residents who consider rats to be a big problem were 72 percent more likely to experience acute depressive symptoms than those who live in similar neighborhoods where rats are not a big problem, the researchers said.
They found that residents in rat-infested neighborhoods suffered from the same strongly negative perceptions of rats as people in other neighborhoods. In other words, these repulsive feelings toward rats don’t become weaker over time. They simply persist with each rat sighting, contributing to depression.
German adds that the conversation about rats has long revolved around concerns of disease, “but that misses what it feels like to be a resident of a neighborhood where you see rats every day. There is no reason why rats should be inherent to areas of poverty.”
Rats are typically found in areas where there is loose trash to eat as well as areas with vacant or poorly kept up housing in which to live. Unfortunately, this is more often the case in low-income neighborhoods.
“Yes, eradicating rats from Baltimore City is a hard goal, but making it so no neighborhood has to see rats every day is a goal we can strive for,” said German.
“It would go a long way toward improving the outlook of people who live in poor neighborhoods and may be a starting point for conversations about other community health priorities. These data suggest that we need to work together with community members to achieve these goals.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Community Psychology.