By Jeanne Perantoni, CEO of SSP Architects
With the first annual Student Mental Health Week starting on February 6th, it is an optimal time to boost public awareness about the importance of our public schools designing spaces that enhance mental health. Even before the added anxiety and stresses caused by the pandemic, numerous surveys and studies found that mental health concerns are, by far, the highest risk and single biggest concern of our schools. A recent study (Blad, 2021) shows that mood disorders, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts have increased along with academic pressure, social media use, isolation and bullying.
This is among the reasons corporations, educational institutions and non-profits have felt compelled to launch Student Mental Health Week. We in the architecture field are committed to doing our share to address this student mental health crisis by playing a leadership role in creating school environments that have a positive influence on behavior.
Incorporating Mental Health Concerns into School Facility Plans
There is no quick fix, which is why our team of education architects at SSP Architects encourage school districts we work with to incorporate long-term student mental issues that include facility space usage into their overall School District Master Plans. Increasingly, we are seeing districts throughout New Jersey addressing this issue in a more planful way. Designing school areas helping to alleviate mental health issues is a multi-pronged process, which includes:
- Creating biophilic designed spaces that not only connect students to nature, but also act as a calming measure. These spaces help reduce stress by incorporating natural light and materials, expanded views of the outdoors, and showcasing a variety of plants and vegetation.
- Positioning support spaces and access to counseling services throughout the school to encourage casual and positive interaction.
- Offering calming rooms that provide students with a quiet, comfortable space that helps them deescalate feelings of anger, anxiousness and being overwhelmed by a challenging situation in their lives. These rooms are designed with tactile fabrics, low lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, active seating that allows students to rock or sway, and opportunities for artistic expression.
- Incorporating sustainable design by including WELL Building Design techniques that have the primary goal of improving the health and comfort of students, teachers, and all school staff. This includes planning more open, brighter spaces designed to bring the “joy factor” into the school environment.
Designing Spaces Boosting Student Health and Wellness
Increasingly, school designs begin with a focus on health and wellbeing at the center of the process. By addressing mental health issues in facility master plans, school districts can better provide the funding over the course of years that are needed to create spaces for restoration and relaxation for both students and teachers. Together, school districts and architects can best determine the best use of often limited resources to nurture young minds in ways that allows them to grow and reach their fullest potential without sacrificing their emotional happiness or threatening their mental health.
Improved Mental Health Enhances Academic Success
Along with the most important aspect of saving and transforming lives, the academic benefits of investing in mental health services in our schools is clearly shown in numerous studies. One of which was conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which found that schools offering such services see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates, as well as lower rates of expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary incidents.
Studies such as this reinforce the need to provide inviting spaces where school-based mental health providers can more easily interact with students and catch potential mental health problems early before they become a major problem. Schools making this investment are seeing better student academic outcomes and improved overall school safety. It’s a win-win for the students, teachers and the community-as-a-whole. It’s a plan of action we can all embrace this Student Mental Health Week and beyond.