The new research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, challenged previous studies that argue that the stress of living in cities and exposure to high pollution act as a risk factor for mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia. Instead, researchers turned the question on its head and examined the genetic predisposition for various mental health conditions and an individual's choice of residence.

Genetic risk of mental health conditions may influence where people choose to live

Using genetic data, the researchers calculated the risk for each study participant for different mental health conditions. Then the relationship to where people currently live and where they have moved was analysed using address history and UK population distribution.

The findings revealed higher genetic risks of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and autism spectrum disorder, while lower risk for ADHD, in those who moved from rural to urban areas compared to those who stayed in rural areas.

The research team said, however, that the choice of residence doesn’t automatically exclude the environmental urban risk factors. Still, they concluded that the findings highlight the importance of focusing not only on those considered most at risk as well as on the need for a treatment model that incorporates a more holistic, integrated approach to exploring the causes of psychiatric conditions.

First author Jessye Maxwell, PhD candidate from Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, said: “Our research shows that at some level an individual’s genes select their environment and that the relationship between environmental and genetic influences on mental health is interrelated. This overlap needs to be considered when developing models to predict the risk of people developing mental health conditions in the future.”

"Importantly, the majority of those people in our analysis did not have a diagnosed mental health condition, so we are showing that across the UK adult population, this genetic risk for mental health conditions plays a role in the environment that people live."