Column: Want to improve student mental health? Designing better spaces.

Think about this: you are in the second hour of a panic attack. You can’t afford to miss classes. You live off campus, so you can’t stop by your dorm for a quick refreshment. You have homework in each of your classes. And you have three exams left in the day.

You haven’t eaten yet and become dizzy, so you brave the long queues in Bottom of Lenoir, sweating as you struggle to find a place, any place, to sit. You finally find an empty chair under a tent outside, the rain hitting the back of your neck. The other tables around you burst out laughing. You are nauseous, hot and claustrophobic in your own clothes. You’re terrified of throwing up, so you quickly leave, hoping to find solace in an empty college building. Your usual quiet place of study is full of people. They’re on the phone, FaceTime, and arguing with their roommates over who’s doing the dishes. The sound rises to a crippling crescendo.

You are usually even. On a normal day, why would you care about crowds? About the noise at all? But anxiety has a funny way of inoculating the brain with illusions, forcing any reason out the window. After all, your body mimics the feeling of a heart attack, and the only thing you can do is let it pass – and who knows how long that will take.

Your mind gives you a few options on how to react: scream or cry or vomit or just run away.

Even if you are lucky enough not to have experienced this scenario, it is still a reality for many students. I know it because I lived it.

Common advice given to students struggling with mental health issues is to simply go to CAPS or speak with a professional. But for people like me who have been mentally ill for most of their lives, many of us have. Most of the time, we devise our own strategies when experiencing panic attacks or other mental health issues (and, frankly, if I spoke to a professional all time I had a panic attack, I did nothing).

Due to high student enrollment and a campus originally designed in the 18th century, overcrowding is inevitable. However, that shouldn’t be a problem. Whether it’s providing clean air and safety, defining well-being, or creating positive and peaceful work environments, the decisions UNC makes now could contribute to well-being and to the success of future classes.

Architecture and health are slowly becoming symbiotic. Irving Weiner, professor of environmental psychology at Massasoit Community College, says that “…some of these environmental influences that we can’t see or touch, but they have a direct influence on our behavior or our mood.” Your subconscious mind reacts to the geometry of spaces, which means interior and exterior design is an integral part of people’s psychology.

The difference in the flow of your day could be the slippery threshold of a door, the clinical hum of a library elevator, the howl of a dorm laundry room. When you’re scrambling to find a place to focus on your breathing or take your meds in private, broken bricks and buildings designed for half of today’s campus population certainly don’t help.

Although campus libraries seem like a good option for quiet and privacy, they are severely underfunded, subject to occasional overcrowding and poor ergonomics, and they are only available to those already on the north campus.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that we are simply engineering our way out of a campus-wide mental health crisis — we need real-world care, now, from university programs like CAPS. Design cannot insulate us from the social, psychological or political factors that may cause our stress in the first place.

However, creating circular spaces with student well-being in mind – rather than academic rigor, tradition or even frugality – could make all the difference. Architectural approaches to mental health and nature, designed to unite both mind and body, have completely transformed the healthcare space, so why not higher education?

Solutions are possible: delimiting parts of the canteens for eating and studying; creating designated quiet spaces in university buildings; natural ventilation and lighting; noise control systems and even the design of more green spaces, beyond campus gardens or the Arboretum.

The psychology of exterior and interior design is a relatively new (and long overdue) concept. The benefit here isn’t just for students struggling with their mental health – it’s for anyone who needs a place to land.


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