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Column: Want to improve students’ mental health? Design better spaces.

Students exit their in-person classes on UNC's campus on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Just think of this: You’re on hour two of a panic attack. You can’t afford to miss class. You live off campus, so you can’t stop by your dorm for a quick refresh. You have homework in each of your classes. And you have three exams left in the day.

You haven’t eaten yet and are getting woozy, so you brave the long lines in Bottom of Lenoir, pouring with sweat as you struggle to find a place, any place, to sit. You finally find an empty chair under a tent outside, rain hitting the nape of your neck. Other tables around you roar with laughter. You’re nauseated, hot and claustrophobic in your own clothes. You’re terrified you might throw up, so you quickly leave, hoping to find solace in an empty academic building. Your usual quiet study spot is filled with people. They’re on the phone, on FaceTime and arguing with their roommates about who’s doing the dishes. The sound heightens to a paralyzing crescendo.

You’re usually even-keeled. On a normal day, why would you care about crowds? About noise at all? But anxiety has a funny way of inoculating the brain with delusion, forcing any and all reason out the window. After all, your body is mimicking the sensation of a heart attack, and the only thing you can do is let it pass — and who knows how long that’ll take. 

Your mind is giving you a couple of options on how to react: scream or cry or throw up or just flee.

Even if you’re lucky enough to not have lived through this scenario — it’s still a reality for many students. I know because I’ve lived it.

The common guidance given to students struggling with mental health is to simply go to CAPS or talk with a professional. But for people like myself who’ve been mentally ill for most of their lives, many of us have already done just that. Most days, we devise our own strategies when we feel panic attacks or other mental health events coming on (and, frankly, if I talked to a professional every time I had a panic attack, I’d get nothing done).

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

Architecture and health are slowly becoming symbiotic. Irving Weiner, an environmental psychology professor at Massasoit Community College, states that “..some of these environmental influences we cannot see or touch, yet they have a direct influence on our behavior or mood.” Your subconscious mind reacts to the geometry of spaces — meaning that both interior and exterior design is an inherent part of people’s psychology. 

The difference in how your day goes could lie in the slippery threshold of a doorway, the clinical buzz of a library elevator, the shrieking of a dorm laundry room. When you’re scrambling to find somewhere to focus on your breathing or take your meds in private, broken bricks and buildings designed for half the current campus population certainly don’t help.

While campus libraries seem like a fine option for quiet and privacy, they’re critically underfunded, prone to occasional overcrowding and bad ergonomics, and they are only available for those already on North Campus. 

It would be ridiculous to suggest we merely design our way out of a campuswide mental health crisis — we need actionable care, now, from University programs like CAPS. Design can’t insulate us from the social, psychological or political factors that may cause our stress in the first place.

However, creating circular spaces with students’ well-being in mind — rather than academic rigor, tradition or even frugality — could make all the difference. Mental health- and nature-forward architectural approaches, designed to bring both the mind and body together, have completely transformed the health care space, so why not higher education?

Solutions are possible: marking off parts of the dining halls for eating and study; creating designated quiet spaces in academic buildings; natural ventilation and lighting; noise control systems and even designing more green space, beyond campus gardens or the Arboretum.

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


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