Opportunity and autonomy: mental wellbeing in architecture

The need to meaningfully engage with mental health in architecture is clear, but what can we do? One possibility is to enhance student and practitioner autonomy by applying our skills to non-traditional problems — representing a dual opportunity to improve mental wellbeing and advance design practice.

We’ve reached an exciting point where improving mental health outcomes in architecture are recognized as a priority. To have the deepest impact, it’s important that we discuss work habits but also those intangible needs: the feeling of autonomy in our work, and the knowledge that we contribute value to the world. As a way of highlighting a common experience of disempowerment in our industry, I reflect here on my career as an architecture student and my personal mental health journey and discuss opportunities to add layers of support and connectedness to the rich lives of architects and students.

I’m studying a Master of Architecture at the Melbourne School of Design after completing my bachelor’s degree in Sydney and working in the industry for two years. I first entered architecture school at 17, where I immediately fell in love with the competitive, passionate environment centred around design studios. I also experienced mental distress due to the brutal habits and behaviour that were normalised by peers and teachers. This led me to feel shame over my “weakness,” and I felt increasingly isolated and crippled by self-doubt — was I suited to work in this industry? Together with having moved away from my friends and family to study, these stresses led me to experience anxiety and depression.

Alongside these issues, I experienced identity and ethical conflict in the work itself. Is constructing new buildings the most sustainable option in a world facing pressures like climate change? Where are the female starchitects? The starchitects of colour? I could not see myself nor my core values in the architects and architecture we worshipped. Trapped in cycles of extreme distress and constrained by a rigid course structure and intense workload, I was unable to explore these tensions and build momentum in my development as an independent designer. During this period, I visited several psychologists and doctors (all of whom helped me) but I didn’t have a breakthrough moment until after graduating and joining a supportive architecture firm. Here I was provided space to reflect, plan, create routine, and make change.

These were my circumstances, but they are far from unique. My friends and classmates provide ample anecdotal evidence that periods of mental distress are frequent, suggesting more systematic study is needed. A friend currently studying his master’s degree said the anxiety he felt just physically being at university made him want it “to be over as soon as possible.” Another friend chose to avoid postgraduate study altogether, in part due to his stressful experience as an undergraduate: “the workload expected doesn’t allow for a balanced life,” he said. These are typical examples of the disempowerment felt by architecture students, which limits students from living independent lives outside of their degree. They are corroborated by available research. A literature review conducted by John Mendoza in 2016 for the NSW Architects Registration Board indicated that the high stress environment architecture students experience has presented elevated risk of mental health problems, but more data needs to be collected. The lack of data has been counterproductive, allowing the spread of misinformation and disproportionate blame on architectural education.

Importantly, Mendoza’s review highlighted that the team environment (the basis of most architects’ work) can create situations where control is taken away from individuals. This organizational and systemic issue needs to be effectively addressed. The usual approach of once-off mental health awareness events and the promotion of therapeutic practices such as massages, yoga, and meditation can help with the negative symptoms of navigating a stressful studio or an unhealthy work environment. However, to have lasting positive effects, these strategies should be integrated into a holistic program which can overlay the existing situation. This sounds like common sense—but designing systems that increase autonomy is an unresolved challenge.

Short-term approaches fail to take advantage of the potential for community and network building, as well as innovations that may arise from collective expertise in our industry. We’re not trained as psychologists, but we are equipped with powerful problem-solving skills. Design processes that don’t necessarily have a built object as the final goal have been a conversation within the architectural community for years. If we can shift the emphasis on architectural skills from outcome to process, it will present two possible benefits in the challenge of supporting mental health: giving architects more options in the way they practice, and a methodology to synthesise a mental health support framework.

I’ve found that one of the most helpful things I can do for a friend going through a period of mental distress is to share my story, so they can see how easy and normal it is to seek help. Similarly, the design process in this mental health challenge should aim to engage architects on a personal level in a variety of ways – including storytelling – depending on their individual needs. These consultative processes have better chances of success and longevity, because we’ll be attached to the outcomes and understand its relevance to our lives. An example of this is the inclusion of regular, structured discussions on health and wellbeing in the workplace. Ideally, we’ll extend this to the development of a nationwide support platform for sharing our stories.

As our lives increasingly migrate online, the places we inhabit are expanding through virtual networks, aiding the democratization of the architectural profession and our education systems. This presents a community building opportunity for co-creating a platform to support mental health in architecture. Online spaces have arisen to meet various similar needs. In the law industry, spaces like the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation support the mental health of lawyers. In architecture, the Parlour website supports gender equity, while in the UK the Architects Benevolent Society was started to provide advice and financial support to architects and architecture students, including mental health support. These are all online networks that create a sense of community through the common goal of mental health and wellbeing.

Mental health sits at the nexus of the work we do and how we do it. It’s a challenge that arises from the very things that make architecture great; the marriage of artistry and practicality. Frameworks that encompass the mental health of architects and architecture students are long overdue. We need to take advantage of this moment and ensure rigorous data collection and network building is prioritised over small-scale interventions or events. Using our skills as designers to engage in consultative processes to tackle a wider range of meaningful problems could be an exciting opportunity to provide architects and architecture students more control over our careers, work environment and the work we do.

Catriona Bisset is a member of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Student Organised Network for Architecture (SONA) and has written this article in response to SONA’s 2018 focus on mental health and wellbeing.

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