Suburban Psychosis

Why suburban life is not as picturesque as many have imagined.


Catherine Reiher, Print Editor

The town mouse or the country mouse? Aesop’s famous fable depicts two mice who live vastly different lives. The message of the fable is that an individual’s safety is more important than luxury. Sadly, there is no inclusion of a suburban mouse, which one could argue is safe enough and luxurious enough. Suburban life is the picturesque white picket fences, cookie-cutter homes, long driveways, and luscious green grassy yards. Effectively, suburban life is the epitome of the ‘American Dream’. Suburbs are often thought of as having the best of both worlds, big city amenities with much of the safety and security of a quiet town. Except that is only what we have been told to think. Psychosis is the state of being lost from reality. Suburbs present a picture-perfect atmosphere, when in reality recent studies show that suburbs can be worse for your health than living in densely populated cities. 

Suburban life became popular following World War II. The GI bill guaranteed veterans home loans and made suburban life affordable. As soldiers returned home, they got married and started having kids. Those families needed to move out of their one-bedroom apartments in the city, and many chose a life in the suburbs. The suburban sprawl changed many aspects of American lives, a heavy reliance on cars was created, suburbs created increasingly segregated neighborhoods, and vast highway systems had to be built.

It all starts with cars. Commuting is a hassle; the average one-way commute, according to the US Census Bureau, is 27.6 minutes. That is 14,392 minutes, 240 hours, or 10 days of your year. By the time an individual retires, they have spent over a year of their life commuting to work. I find that disturbing, but what does all of this have to do with suburbs? Individuals in the suburbs are more likely to drive everywhere: work, school, shopping, and restaurants. This is a problem even in a well-connected smaller suburban cities like the western suburbs. In their nature, suburbs are very spread out, and they lack the infrastructure for optional public transportation and for non-car private transportation like walking or biking. 

“Driving to school has always been a burden for me. I take the interstate and overall my drive, with morning traffic, takes about 20 minutes.” Said Renee Johnson ‘23

When the 2-mile school transportation rule was implemented for high school students in Johnston, a portion of students in the 2-mile radius of their school qualified for busing because of the absence of adequate sidewalks or difficulty due to high-traffic roads. Exemplifying why, even in Johnston, the suburban city style is not always ideal. The large dependence on cars for transportation is broadly cited for higher rates of obesity in suburbs, due to the increase in inactivity that cars promote. 

Individuals in suburban areas also report more chronic health problems like hypertension, arthritis, and difficulty breathing. Many of these chronic health issues can be comorbidities of obesity. Higher reported rates of difficulty breathing is an interest statistical conclusion, as suburbs are generally praised for their good air quality when compared to large cities. While living in the suburbs may put you at higher risk for these health conditions, its effects on your mental health are the most concerning. 

Suburbs in their nature are very isolating, they do not offer the same daily interactions that someone in a large city would have. Suburban environments encourage isolation and individualism because of their structure, and promote higher levels of depression. For many in suburbs, there is a disconnect between expected and achieved happiness. A study from The University of Chicago found that when comparing individuals in cities and suburban environments, those in the suburban environments reported less satisfaction in their lives. Individuals in densely populated cities expressed depressed moods and dissatisfaction with where they live, while individuals in more affluent suburban communities expressed higher levels of depression, low self-esteem, and worthlessness. The culprit for this dissatisfaction in life is the idea that achieving the ideal livelihood can solve any underlying issue. Instead of blaming the environment for discomfort, loneliness, or unhappiness, individuals blame themselves. To elaborate, the lack of community that is found in suburban communities could be contributing to an inhabitant’s low self-esteem or feeling as though they are not contributing to society. 

By nature, humans are pack animals and thrive in environments interacting with and being supported by one another. When humans do not have those innately desired interactions, loneliness is inevitable. During the Covid-19 pandemic when isolation was at an all time high the World Health Organization released a document on the consequences of loneliness specifically in older-people. The document includes harsh implications. “In older age, social isolation and loneliness increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, cognitive decline, dementia, depression, anxiety and suicide.

Before you panic and purchase a condo in downtown Des Moines, there are plenty of ways to promote a healthy body and mind while continuing to live in the suburbs of any city. 52% of Americans describe where they live as suburban [US Census Bureau], and as I have just told you that puts you at a higher risk for obesity, hypertension, and depression to name a few. The root of these statistics is that cities force individuals to have a more active life and to see and interact with others on a regular basis. If you want to enjoy life in suburbia: make meaningful connections with those around you, exercise regularly, and utilize the outdoor environment. The big difference between suburban and urban is the amount of green space open for public use. Next time you are debating taking Toto for a walk, hiking a local park, or playing an intense game of sand volleyball at your community center, remember how much it will benefit both your physical and mental health.