Prioritizing Mental Health in Higher Ed Design

The mental wellbeing of college students has a powerful impact on their development and educational success. COVID-19 has only served to highlight these needs and the necessity of creating a healthy school environment from the ground up. Books, like The Power of Place by Winifred Gallagher, have clearly depicted the impact that our surroundings have on our thoughts, emotions, and actions. The spaces we spend most of our time in can create or diminish our sense of social connection and community. For many college students, the campus is one of the primary places they spend their time, making it a critical variable to consider when seeking to improve mental and emotional development.

The Freedom to Choose

Providing students with the ability to make their own decisions regarding how they interact with their environment provides an increased sense of freedom. This even has the potential to improve engagement in their education! Flexible design and furniture selections help create this sense of freedom and control. There are many types of spaces where students can be both social and productive by interacting in groups, while still providing easily accessible spaces for alone time. Providing options to best support personal wellbeing should be a priority.

Finding Inspiration in Nature

On average, 90% of our time is spent indoors. This separation from the natural world can have a long list of mental and physical effects. Brining the "outdoors in" can reduce stress, increase cognitive performance, and positively affect emotion and mood. This concept is called biophilia and has been shown to correlate with improved learning. One specific element of biophilia, exposure natural light, has been shown to enhance learning rates as much as 26%, according to  a study by Heschong Mahone GroupAnother study , completed at Green Street Academy in Baltimore said that test scores were 3.3x higher in classrooms that featured a connection to nature. These are some serious numbers!

Choosing Materials Wisely

Materials used in a space, as well as the art throughout, also have a significant impact on the sense of place for students. Visual art has been shown to help reduce anxiety and agitation. Art is even used in healthcare settings to support physical, mental, and emotional health of patients. Choosing patterns, textures, photos, and artwork that students can relate to or make them comfortable helps create a sense of belonging and ownership in the space.

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