How the built environment affects student mental health

Buro Happold continues to research how the built environment affects student mental health

The physical environment plays a crucial role in how first year students establish friendships that may last a lifetime. Conversely, if poorly designed, these buildings can contribute to social isolation, in turn triggering academic and mental health issues.

University students and staff need to be encouraged to understand the role of the environment and community in protecting mental health.
Mike Entwisle, partner and education sector lead

For those heading off to university and making their way in the world, moving away from familiar support structures such as family and school friends can leave students isolated, lonely and afraid. Mix in the financial burden of university fees along with living expense loans and life — as they knew it — quickly feels alien to them.

Students meeting and sharing ideas in an effective university space

Over the last few years, Buro Happold has been researching and exploring how the physical environment can affect the mental health of students; whether for good or bad. Our findings are that connectivity is key: connectivity within and between buildings, across campuses and through the cities in which universities are located. This speaks clearly to a need for community and identifies what is often lost when moving away and beginning student life in another part of the country — or, in some cases, another part of the world.

There are no quick fixes — however, it is clear that we should take the time needed to equip students with the necessary skills to thrive before, during and after university. Helping teenagers understand how to connect with the university community feels like a good start. Part of the preparation for student life needs to include improving the awareness of support and the ability to seek it. The universities themselves must also clearly communicate and support initiatives to tackle loneliness, and promote a sense of belonging.

From our research, it is clear that universities are taking student wellbeing extremely seriously, with many of them investing in specialist support structures and interventions. Universities are also thinking critically on the best ways to reconfigure their estates and campuses to enrich student wellbeing.

Through the recent series of design sprints led by Buro Happold, options have been explored for city-based university masterplans to include elements such as the availability and route of public transit between the university and student accommodation and developing accommodation that promotes both interaction and the choice of when and where to interact.

BuroHappold’s design sprints enable a broad range of disciplines to address specific challenges around student mental health.

Each intervention may feel insignificant; however, they all contribute to the bigger picture — which is that university students and staff need to be encouraged to understand the role of the environment and community in protecting student mental health.

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