Planning & Design for Wellness and Mental Health in Schools

Dan Wetherell, AIA, president of RATCLIFF Architect

When planning and designing academic facilities there are  important  considerations  that  will  inform how spaces are shaped – technology, teaching philosophy security and sustainability to name a few. In recent years, wellness and mental health have emerged as new and prevalent topicFinal 1-11 Archnews Sep_Page_03_Image_0001s to consider during the programming and design process. Architects have the opportunity and the obligation to consider how the academic environment can support good mental health and allow for students to feel part of a supportive and whole community.

Research shows that students are experiencing anxiety and depression more than ever. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 8% of students suffer from some type of anxiety disorder and that 25% have suffered from anxiety at some point in their lives. Along with administrators, faculty and staff, we as architects and design professionals have to ask ourselves why this is happening and how this statistic informs how schools should be programmed and designed.


Possible Causes:

There is a lot of speculation as to why there are increased anxiety issues with students. Some firmly attribute the cause to the tremendous pressure from parents, school administrators and the students themselves to achieve scholastically. In an open house session with a group of administrators from various Bay Area private schools, we discussed the current stresses that youth face — they are asked to participate in organized activities, maintain top GPA’s, compete for advanced placement classes, and eventually be accepted into top schools. All participants agreed that students, now more than ever, struggle with developing their academic self rather than allowing for enough downtime to have fun and develop socially. Unfortunately, between heavy class loads and after-school commitments, there is very little unstructured time. It is also clear that students are too “plugged in” with the constant use of smart phones, computers, and social media applications. Despite the bombardment of messages to the contrary, connectedness cannot be replaced virtually, and the resulting loss of connection leads to students experiencing feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. They are losing their ability, and perhaps their desire, to relate and socialize directly with other people.


What We Can Do to Help:

Naturally, the responsibility to address the mental health of a child starts with the family. We have to accept, how- ever, that students spend the majority of their time during the week on a school campus. School administrators can play a significant role by being sensitive to the demands they place on students and by offering support through counseling when needed. How can the architect team help to provide support. Here are examples of ways we believe that academic environments can support good mental health and allow for students to feel part of a supportive and whole community. We certainly recognize that students have different needs and are impact- ed uniquely by academic pressures and their physical environment.

  • Create a secure campus as a means to create a flexible and open design                      Final 1-11 Archnews Sep_Page_03_Image_0002          Regrettably, students today are vulnerable to violence at a scale unknown to their parents. Students need to be and feel safe and secure in their surroundings, but we don’t want the result to be schools that look or feel like prisons. A campus should have a clear, secure area around the site which can be developed with the use of buildings, landscape, and fencing to minimize unwanted intruders and potential threats. The cam- pus design should provide for a clear arrival point towards the administrative offices so that visitors can check in before entering the campus. Once inside the campus, security measures can be balanced with a cam- pus that is private, open, connected and barrier free, all of which help students to feel connected and to establish a sense of community. A range of different spaces can be created to allow for personal preferences and moods. At College Prep School in Oakland, simple buildings are organized on both sides of a ravine allowing the open space between buildings to be the area of focus and activity. The buildings and ravine create both a secure zone and a sense of place. There are large and small spaces that provide for a variety of activities and moods.
  • Create spaces that allow for community and quiet reflection         Final 1-11 Archnews Sep_Page_03_Image_0003                                            Most campus designs are moving away from the“cells and bells” configuration and moving towards open, well-lit, varied-sized learning spaces that are connected environments to promote interdisciplinary and human interaction. Open environments can help to minimize students’ feelings of isolation and being confined in an over-structured repetitive environment. Long corridors with classrooms that are all identical can be monotonous and uninspiring. In a recent discussion with students, they said they felt like they were moving between the same exact class- rooms all day and missed the connection to other types of spaces and seeing other students. Like all of us, they seek out places they can go when they are feeling stressed and need some quiet time.

Although supervision is extremely important, students sometimes need a moment of respite, a quiet place to meditate, unwind and relax. The in-between spaces in school buildings can be used to meet both of these criteria; they can provide the opportunity for smaller groups to socialize or offer space for a student to be alone, while still being supervised on campus.

  • Design educational spaces that are stimulating and dynamic                                                     Today’s construction budgets warrant simplicity and duplication to keep costs down: four walls, a floor and a ceiling, one paint color, a simple light fixture layout, and perhaps one wall of windows are the usual design components. Furniture is usually identical from one classroom to the next. No wonder students feel restricted, anxious, and uninspired! Classroom designs can still be inspiring with limited budgets. Considerations include flexible seating and table arrangements, cDavid Wakelyhanges in color, windows that add daylight and views inside and outside, ceiling and lighting systems that provide good acoustics and visual interest. Statistics show that classrooms that have good daylight, ventilation, and are comfortable lead to better student performance.

At the new De La Salle STREAM Innovation Center, 50% of the ceiling surface in the science labs are left exposed and painted dark grey while the other 50% has curved acoustical  panels. This design feature  alone transforms what would otherwise feel like a very large contained space into a space that is visually dynamic.

Create a campus that has a clear sense of place and identity  David Wakely                                                              A campus without a sense of place can contribute to students feeling lost, disoriented, and isolate I think we can all conjure up a mental image of our favorite places on campus when we think of our own experiences in school. These spaces tend to be a courtyard,  quad,  library,  cafe  or  combination  of  spaces. Putting  emphasis  on  creating  or  maintaining  these  types  of spaces can help students to identify with the school, which creates a sense of belonging thereby offsetting feelings of separation. Most schools work very hard to live and support their vision, mission and purpose. As architects, we look for ways to support those initiatives through the physical environment. We often get involved  in  artwork  projects,  gardens,  displays,  and  physical enhancements that reinforce each school’s message, a message that can enhance each student’s sense of place and identity.

  • Access to the outdoors                     David Wakely                              Students spend the majority of their day indoors moving from one classroom to the next. They need time to get outside, get some air and exercise, which allows them to clear their head and transition from one subject matter to the next. Many campuses are incorporating outdoor classrooms, meditation gardens, labyrinths, amphitheaters, outdoor  eating  areas  and  the like to provide opportunities to socialize and learn in alternative environments.
  • Create counseling spaces that are welcoming and secure                                                             Personal  counseling  is  becoming  more  and  more  common  in  schools. When students are feeling stressed, there should be a place they can go to seek help and support. Personal counseling areas should be designed to provide for a high level of  privacy and be welcoming and comfortable. Oftentimes  these  spaces  have  more  of  a  residential  feel  with  area  rugs, casual furniture, table lamps, and art work to counter the institutional feel of the school. Private conference rooms are set up around an informal meeting space that can also be used for group discussion.David Wakely

Our world is changing so quickly; — the pressures of education, how people connect socially, and how these impact our students is difficult to fully understand. Far too often we read or hear on the news of yet another student taking their own life not able to cope with the pressures they feel. We will continue our conversations with school administrators and faculty to explore the issues surrounding student anxiety and different ways to address the problem. Creating increased awareness and understanding is certainly the first step. Keeping students’ emotional well-being foremost in the design process is an important next step.


Dan Wetherell, AIA, is president of RATCLIFF Architects and leads the firm’s award-winning K-12 practice.

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