Deteriorating levels of mental health among young Americans are increasingly well documented and a growing concern for parents, educators and medical professionals. But student housing architecture may be able to play a role in combatting the scourge.
According to Mental Health America, rates of children’s visits to emergency departments due to deliberate self-harm soared 329% between 2007 and 2016.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported mental health among students continues to decline, as seen by the more than 40% of high school students who felt so despondent, they could not engage in regular activities for at least two weeks the prior year.
The mental health challenges facing youth have extended into their college years. The CDC reported 73% of collegians report a mental health crisis during college and 45% report feeling their personal situation is hopeless. Yet only a quarter of students with mental health problems said they sought help for the condition.
Designs of student housing built over the past couple of decades have tended to prioritize what students want, rather than what they need, says Marissa Kasdan, director of research and development for Chicago-based architectural firm KTGY.
Over that period, the nation’s student housing designers have delivered living units that have grown increasingly large and luxurious, enabling students to study, sleep, eat and relax without leaving their own residences. “While convenient, this strategy discourages students from connecting with other students,” Kasdan says. “It precipitates solitary activities and builds isolation, exacerbating mental health challenges.”
Preferable would be less privacy, she argues. Smaller groups of units, each providing readily-accessed shared study lounges and student spaces, where collegians could forge connections rather than isolating in their lonely rooms, may be a solution.
“Design may not be able to prevent students from spending time on social media or experimenting with controlled substances,” Kasdan says. “However, correlations have been made between one’s feeling of connectedness and their overall mental wellbeing. By building up a support system of friends, they are less likely to participate in unhealthy activities. Additionally, activities typically seen as solitary, such as social media use and gaming, can become a means of connecting with others when social gathering spaces provide a place to participate in those activities together.”
Designed to thrive
Convinced a rethinking of student housing is required to address youth mental illness challenges, designers at KTGY created an R&D concept called Thrive Hall.
The concept investigates how student housing might be designed to specifically address mental health and wellness by pursuing seven objectives. They are creating community, reinforcing community, connection to nature, quality rest, active lifestyle, intentional study spaces and mental health support.
Two of those goals are addressed through an innovative Thrive Hall approach to students’ shared room design. College students too often fail to grasp the link between quality sleep and mental wellness, Kasdan says. She cited a study that found people who got less than six hours of sleep nightly were 2.5 times more likely to deal with mental wellness hurdles than those who enjoyed more than six hours shut eye.
In student housing, quality and quantity of rest may be limited by incompatible habits of roommates, precipitating physical and mental health challenges.
“Incorporating sliding doors to create a visual and acoustic separation in room-sharing situations can help mitigate roommate disturbances,” Kasdan reports. “Additionally, students’ sleeping spaces often double as study spaces. By providing spaces within their shared living areas, the stress of studying is separated from the calm of sleeping, increasing the effectiveness of both.”
Kasdan believes designers of student housing should be responsible for considering how best to support student needs through design. “The strategies we are proposing for supporting mental wellness will set students up for success,” she asserts.
“The college experience is more than essays and tests. It is a life experience welcoming young people into adulthood. Student housing is the backdrop for many of those life experiences, and the future of student housing design should appreciate its important role.”