Better mental health

Better mental health

Can the university estate better support student wellbeing?

Student mental health is a very real issue for educational institutions.  Statistics from an Insight Network online survey showed that 50 per cent of students have contemplated self-harm and 21 per cent have a current mental health diagnosis (most commonly depression).  Mike Entwisle, Partner and Education Sector Director at Buro Happold, discusses the impact our surroundings have on mental health and how university estates can be improved to help tackle this important issue.

‘It’s okay not to be okay’ is a phrase often used when talking about mental health.  While it’s encouraging to see an increased awareness about mental health over the last few years and greater acknowledgement about how serious an issue it can be, there’s still plenty of work to be done to offer support to those who need it.  But what about their surroundings?  Importantly, is it okay for university estates not to be okay?

It’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that the state of our mental health is intrinsically linked to our environment, and expecting students to live and study in sub-standard buildings, within unpleasant external surroundings, is impacting on their wellbeing.  Conversely, universities that have invested in high quality facilities are reaping the benefit.  As our own global research into the design of university facilities has found, something as simple as improving visibility or ease of movement within or between buildings or improving metrics like temperature, noise and air quality can be directly linked to positive wellbeing outcomes.

Students spend so much time in these spaces, working long hours and living away from home – not to mention the added financial burden and mental strain of university fees along with living expense loans and life – so it’s crucial their surroundings are at an appropriate standard to support them physically and mentally.

However, many British universities have ageing estates with a high percentage of buildings from the 1960s and ‘70s, which can require large investment to bring them up to date.  Unfortunately, many of these buildings no longer adequately meet the needs of today’s students and academics, whether in terms of environmental performance or their lack of support for new ways of learning and 21st century student life.  However, with close collaboration and skillful design, it is possible to breathe new life into dysfunctional buildings and also tackle mental health.

Identifying the issue

To do this, it’s crucial to firstly recognise and understand the problem.  At Buro Happold, we’ve surveyed over 5,000 students globally and found that 44 per cent considered the design of university facilities to be average or poor, with issues of physical connectivity called into question.  Many university estates are in a difficult predicament and suffering from a chronic lack of investment.  This isn’t about criticising these institutions, it’s about working together as a sector to recognise and identify the challenges – and indeed the opportunities – to improve student wellbeing.  The goal is to facilitate workable and realistic change.

It is clear that universities are taking student wellbeing extremely seriously, with many of them investing in specialist support structures and interventions.  Many universities are also thinking critically on the best ways to reconfigure their estates and campuses to enrich student wellbeing, encouraging a greater sense of community and interaction.  It’s critical this work is recognised, so students can be more informed about the university they’re considering to study at.

Building for better mental health

So, how can university estates be improved to address this issue?  By improving connectivity and creating environments that bring people together, more supportive, and so more productive, places can be created.  This can be done by analysing and predicting the frequency of personal interaction, which allows designers to optimise this vital element of student life.

The University of Exeter is a case in point.  Recognising that its existing campus lacked a hub, and that there was a disconnect between some of its key facilities such as the main library and educational spaces, the university created The Forum.  This development has brought new and existing buildings together within a galleried, indoor street space providing a wide range of learning, social and support facilities.  Not only has The Forum improved the connectivity between buildings and made things more convenient – a key attribute these days – but it has also created a central place where students can and want to spend time during the day, bringing people out of their rooms and together in shared social and learning spaces.

What can be done to address the impact of the university estate on mental health?

It's an issue, however, that can be subjective.  Until recently, the link between the built environment and mental health hasn’t fully been appreciated or well understood.  While we can easily measure daylight or acoustic levels, quantifying and making a link to mental health is more difficult, as everyone is different.

Over the last few years, we’ve been researching and exploring how the physical environment can affect the mental health of students; whether for good or bad.  Our findings revealed that connectivity is key: physical connectivity within and between buildings, across campuses and through the cities in which universities are located.  Avoiding social isolation is key.

Universities can use data to see how design decisions influence factors such as people flow, interaction, air quality, noise and temperature, linking to health and wellbeing outcomes.  This approach can inform high-level decisions based on travel distances, connectivity, and integration with key amenities.  The result is spaces that offer the best possible experience for learning, creativity, social interaction and – ultimately – mental health.

Estate managers need to understand the role of the environment in protecting mental health, in order to make more informed decisions about how the estate is used, upgraded or where needed, redeveloped.  Increasing the awareness about the impact between the university estate on mental health will help to do this.

A potential solution to the problem?

One way to increase awareness is for university league tables to be extended with an additional metric, focused on the university estate and its impact on students’ mental health and wellbeing, so it can be measured over time.  At the moment, this doesn’t exist – but I believe it needs to.

In a world where it is increasingly clear that the built environment can directly impact mental health and wellbeing, it is inconceivable that students do not have access to a universally accepted mechanism for assessing and comparing the state of a university’s buildings, the way they facilitate social interaction and their impact on mental health.

Currently, international university league tables, such as QS or Times Higher Education, focus on academic results and employability rankings, whereas the student experience is explored by systems such as the Complete University Guide and The Guardian.  This is all important, but why not rank satisfaction with wellbeing and the built environment too?

We’ve spoken about this extensively with Vice Chancellors, Directors of Estates, and student welfare officers from fifteen of England’s leading universities, as well as psychologists, mental health charities, architects students and recent graduates.  Our research has helped to reveal the challenges of effectively harnessing the university estate to help tackle social isolation and provide an environment that allows staff and students to flourish.  It’s also highlighted opportunities for greater collaboration and sharing of information between universities when it comes to improving the estate.  Clearly, there is still more work to be done.

Student mental health is an extremely intricate issue that has many potential causes and triggers, and the estate undoubtedly has a part to play.  We know that the built environment is not the only factor contributing to mental health, nor are there straightforward answers to this complex issue.  We do, however, have a responsibility to design spaces in and around universities that provide the best possible opportunities for people to enjoy student life and thrive in good mental health.  Estates teams can play their part in this by becoming more aware about the hidden challenges’ students are facing, which are sometimes affected by the university estate.