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Open Access Research article

Measuring the neighbourhood using UK benefits data: a multilevel analysis of mental health status

David L Fone1*, Keith Lloyd2 and Frank D Dunstan1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Primary Care & Public Health, Centre for Health Sciences Research, Cardiff University, Heath Park, Cardiff CF14 4YS, UK

2 School of Medicine, Swansea University, Swansea SA2 8PP, UK

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BMC Public Health 2007, 7:69  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-69

Published: 3 May 2007



Evidence from multilevel research investigating whether the places where people live influence their mental health remains inconclusive. The objectives of this study are to derive small area-level, or contextual, measures of the local social environment using benefits data from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and to investigate whether (1) the mental health status of individuals is associated with contextual measures of low income, economic inactivity, and disability, after adjusting for personal risk factors for poor mental health, (2) the associations between mental health and context vary significantly between different population sub-groups, and (3) to compare the effect of the contextual benefits measures with the Townsend area deprivation score.


Data from the Welsh Health Survey 1998 were analysed in Normal response multilevel models of 24,975 individuals aged 17 to 74 years living within 833 wards and 22 unitary authorities in Wales. The mental health outcome measure was the Mental Health Inventory (MHI-5) of the Short Form 36 health status questionnaire. The benefits data available were the means tested Income Support and Income-based Job Seekers Allowance, and the non-means tested Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance. Indirectly age-standardised census ward ratios were calculated to model as the contextual measures.


Each contextual variable was significantly associated with individual mental health after adjusting for individual risk factors, so that living in a ward with high levels of claimants was associated with worse mental health. The non-means tested benefits that were proxy measures of economic inactivity from permanent sickness or disability showed stronger associations with individual mental health than the means tested benefits and the Townsend score. All contextual effects were significantly stronger in people who were economically inactive and unavailable for work.


This study provides evidence for substantive contextual effects on mental health, and in particular the importance of small-area levels of economic inactivity and disability. DWP benefits data offer a more specific measure of local neighbourhood than generic deprivation indices and offer a starting point to hypothesise possible causal pathways to individual mental health status.