It’s probably no surprise that people who experienced foreclosures during the Great Recession may have also experienced symptoms of depression. However, researchers have found that the mental health effects of foreclosure go beyond the individual to the community at-large.

“For the most part, discussion of foreclosure has focused on the individual experience, the people who are in this circumstance, who are at risk of losing their homes, of losing that nest egg,” said Kathleen Cagney, a professor within the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. “But we wanted to think about foreclosure in a structural way, at the community level. We wanted to examine (foreclosure) as a neighborhood experience.”

Cagney is the co-author of a study that did just that and which was published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). To conduct the study, researchers examined data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, focusing in on older adults ages 57 years old and older in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago. Cagney, who also directs the Population Research Center at the university’s National Opinion Research Center, said she and her colleagues decided to focus on older adults because they tend to be more connected to their communities — “they spend more of their days in their neighborhoods, pick up signals more readily and can be more susceptible to what’s happening in a neighborhood,” Cagney told me.

The study found a “dramatic uptick” in reports of depressive symptoms among older adults who lived in communities most affected by the foreclosure crisis. In other words, a rise in neighborhood-level foreclosures was found to be a risk factor for depression in older adults. Depressive symptoms were associated with increases in mortgage default notices, with homes coming under the ownership of banks and with increases in properties going to auction. Cagney and co-authors Christopher Browning, James Iveniuk and Ned English wrote:

Interestingly, increases in neighborhood poverty and visible disorder were not statistically significant, suggesting that neither of these contextual factors was important to the mechanism connecting foreclosure and depression. This result is consistent with recent findings in the social sciences suggesting that the impact of foreclosure on communities is independent of disorder. We speculate that foreclosure is a sign of disorder in its own right; a posting of foreclosure, regardless of the quality of the property in arrears, signals instability and disinvestment akin to trash on the street or sidewalks in disrepair. Thus, foreclosure can embody components of disorder even when it may not immediately lead to other visible forms of disorder, such as a dilapidated porch or a broken picture window.

Cagney said that although researchers did expect to find a link between foreclosure and depression in the wider community, “we found a stronger link than we anticipated.” Another surprising finding was the uptick in depression symptoms throughout every stage of foreclosure and not just when visible signs of foreclosure, such as disrepair or unkempt lawns, began to appear.

“Foreclosure is experienced by all of us,” Cagney told me. “It alters all of our daily lives when the world around us feels unstable, as if it’s disintegrating. That’s going to impact our health, emotionally and physically.”

So how can public health workers use Cagney’s findings in their work with older adults? She said that high rates of foreclosure in a neighborhood might be predictive of problems that come with social isolation, signaling a need for additional support services or interventions. For example, with fewer residents, churches may cancel events, the local community center might get shuttered or the streets are simply less busy with the usual bustle of a thriving neighborhood. Even if it’s simply waving hello to a local business owner who had to close up shop — these are the seemingly insignificant activities that impact social connection and mental wellness, Cagney said. The study recommends that “at the neighborhood level, communities may want to manage distressed and abandoned properties so they do not introduce physically or socially compromised spaces that older adults must navigate.”

“Just going outside and seeing action on the streets, even if you don’t have a conversation, has a social benefit,” Cagney told me. “You feel like a part of something. You don’t feel alone.”

To access the full AJPH study, click here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.