As a designer of Student accommodations for university students, especially following this difficult year and a half of pandemic, the discussion around mental wellbeing has become one of the most important topics.
A few months back, I found out about Student Minds and the work and best practices they develop around the issues of mental health and wellbeing in University. Just in 2015, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the requests for help at students’ support programs saw a 150% increase. Since then, and especially in 2020 and 2021, the situation got even more serious.
A survey by Morgan Stanley reported that in the US many educators are expecting the pre-existing issues to get much worse. Worsened mental condition after the long period of lockdown is considered (by 41% of the surveyed educators) as the third most worrying factor, after learning deficits (47%) and economic difficulties (42%). Many more entities and media outlets are reporting similar studies.
Student Minds produced a report around its pilot project called The Student Living Project, developed in collaboration with University Partnership Programme (UPP) and Nottingham Trent University. Lots of the work presented aims at instructing and defining a framework for property managers, developers, and even designers to understand how to approach these issues and deal with them in the best way possible.
An important distinction to keep in mind is the one made between mental health difficulties and mental wellbeing. The first, defined also as mental illness, is a condition supported by medical evidence for which a certain kind of support is offered. On the other hand, mental wellbeing can derive from a range of external factors and fluctuate differently from mental health conditions. This means that a student with mental health difficulties can experience minimal mental wellbeing in the wrong environment, or optimal mental wellbeing if the right infrastructure is in place. The same goes for students with minimal or no mental health difficulties.
Source: Student Minds
There are several potential problems connected with students moving into accommodations at university.
The transition between home and student accommodation. This is often the first time students move in their life to live far from their families and with completely new routines. This change can surely make an individual more vulnerable. Certain problems in changing environment can be even exacerbated for students who were already experiencing mental health difficulties.
Sense of isolation. 70% of the students interviewed by Student Minds report friends and family as the most important factor in their wellbeing. So, the sudden change is likely to have an effect on more fragile individuals.
Homesickness. Following the previous data, up to 73% claimed they felt homesick during the transition period.
Living with strangers. A big part of the university life experience is sharing a space with fellow students. Adaptability naturally changes from person to person and some are likely to find it more challenging to arrange their daily routine around that.
From these derive also the sense of Safety and Security. In an environment that is not properly controlled, students are at a high risk of suffering discrimination due to gender, race, sexuality, faith, or disability.
Drugs and Alcohol. In a certain context, these become part of the social culture at university, and some students might feel forced to make use of them to avoid feeling excluded. However, increased use of alcohol and other substances is also associated with depression and anxiety.
The most important factor to tackle this issue properly is close collaboration between all the stakeholders. So managers and developers (and even designers) should establish the right communication channels early on with universities or other institutions to start a discussion that can lead to the definition of an elaborate set of rules and best practices.
This is important as depending on the situation, the experience of mental problems can change in university or in a PBSA building, so a joint effort is necessary. A contributing factor is also the definition of responsibility. Every employee, or figure that can come into contact with students should be fully aware of his/her role in case any problem arises.
Strict rules to ensure the students’ privacy and trust in the service must be defined early as well.
Finally, a system for reporting is as important as all the other steps. While making sure that the students' privacy and dignity are protected, arranging a set of steps and guidelines for staff at different levels to report potential issues would help to improve knowledge and culture around these problems.
All of this, in turn, allows proper training for each figure. While all the people involved in students’ support at any level should receive a certain degree of training, other figures should become proper reference points. Creating a students’ support body with specific functions would not only help in dealing with a number of situations more effectively but also create awareness as a more clearly recognisable entity.
Awareness and easier access to support groups and infrastructures facilitate students' conditions when it comes to overcome potential trust issues and encourage them in overcoming difficulties when communicating personal matters to a stranger.
As discussed in previous articles, design can play a crucial role in the virtuous development of a community. In this case too, the collaboration between developers, managers, designers, and even students themselves is key to create a well-functioning environment.
New builds are an opportunity for designers to use the experience accumulated and promote innovative solutions to improve the students’ life. Refurbishments too, despite being flexible, can still implement numerous steps in the right direction. From basic but important aspects like spaces to encourage the development of communities, or improving sleep hygiene, like we have discussed in last week’s article, to repurposed areas to offer more privacy and quiet time.
Thinking about the changing needs of the shared-living sector after the long isolation, with the need to ensure health and safety as well as a homely space, in our video for The Class Conference we hypothesised the development of dedicated rooms for small group activities. We thought a new alternative to encourage social life without the pressure of large spaces, and offering also a more private and intimate space could be creating bookable rooms for small groups with some flexible equipment to adapt to different needs. A similar space would also be easier to control and a positive way to protect the students' health and safety while still promoting social gatherings.
Like the one just described, all the other amenities should be developed with the wellbeing of the students in mind and not just as an added sales point. To this end, students' feedback is key. Much like Student Minds’ report mentions the collaboration between developers and institutions, designers and students should both (in different ways of course) take part in the design process. When it comes to mental wellbeing especially, listening to students' needs in terms of spaces and atmosphere should be an important guideline for property developers and designers.
The topic of mental wellbeing was already gaining importance in the past years, but the pandemic exacerbated some unfavourable conditions. There are many measures that companies can implement to improve the way, effectiveness, and timing with which the staff deals with these issues. From reporting to organising dedicated groups, to proper training.
At the basis of all of this though there should always be cooperation between property managers and universities or other support institutions. In the same way, design can improve through the collaboration of more parties, involving the students and taking into consideration their invaluable feedback. New ideas developed with their needs and preferences in mind should be the priority and could be the key to new approaches and innovative ideas.
As multiple members of our time during their time in University experienced conditions of low mental wellbeing and benefitted from a positive and supportive community, we consider the attention to this topic as one of our most important missions. These issues can be solved quite easily sometimes, but that does not mean they should be overlooked. It is always worth reaching out and ask for help, and this is why it is so important to promote a positive community.