Designing Schools for Better Mental Health
Context & Responsibility
Schools are wonderful places to educate, promote and support children in their understanding of mental health. Because most children spend a significant amount of their time in schools, parents generally turn to teachers for advice when their children face mental health challenges. Given their proximity, teachers and staff are well placed to recognize and support their students’ mental health, but is there adequate support for schools to do this?
Education funding cuts have significant impacts on student access to mental health resources. Cuts in education psychologists, speech and language therapists and other mental health services mean that some children are not getting the help they need. Early intervention is important, and timely support can prevent mental health conditions developing and where they do, give students tools and strategies with which to self-manage. When students do not have the means to identify or address mental health concerns at the primary level, issues often escalate in their later years. This creates a wider attainment gap and a much larger expense to the state in the long term. Children excluded from services at age 12 are four times as likely to be jailed as adults, according to research by the University of Edinburgh.
“50% of all mental health lifetime cases will have started by the age of 14” – Anna Freud National Centre for Children & Families
The Built Environment
There are many factors that influence a young person’s mental health. These include social and geographic factors such as family income, where they live, and systemic prejudices towards culture, body size, race and religion. Between homework, exams, technology and social pressure, school life can be rigorous and stressful, directly impacting an individual’s mental health too. Other factors include physical environments, and given the amount of time children spend in school, these spaces impact their wellbeing.
Studies have shown that individual emotional responses vary according to settings in particular buildings and spaces. In healthcare facilities, there is a body of evidence showing that “sense sensitive” environments can lead to speedier patient recoveries, reduced pain, better quality care and de-stressed staff. In schools, sense sensitive design can lead to calmer environments, supported spaces, improved attainment and less stress on staff.
Assessing colour, light, noise and temperature in schools will alter that ways in which users react to their surroundings. Hot and cool scenarios allow designers to satisfactorily prepare spaces prior to use, and introduce colour in the design to help attenuate movement through space. However, colour is only one of a myriad of factors that influence mental health in schools. The following are essential to consider when delivering a holistic Mental Health Design in schools:
- Create welcoming buildings and grounds
- Foster a safe and secure environment for all users
- Maximise natural light and ventilation
- Creatively utilise landscape and orientation
- Achieve inclusive spaces for users
- Consider the design of sensitive spaces, including washrooms and staircases
- Pave a clear progression between private and public spaces
- Create an environmental structure and building fabric that considers lifecycle cost and reduces energy bills and maintenance costs. This allows schools to focus limited capital on teaching and support.
- Operate passive surveillance and pastoral care
- Compose a legible wayfinding strategy
- Assess internal and external space acoustics
- Assure that air quality considers lifelong impacts on children
In order to create Healthy Schools that support and better the mental health of our learners and teachers, it is important that as architects and designers, we:
- Understand the political and social context in which we are working in, and continue to talk about it;
- Continue to explore and drive for change;
- Position ourselves as facilitators, working to help people make connections; and
- Design and build quality environments that support diversity and promote active mental health.
Paul Turpin’s experience covers many sectors, including commercial, mixed use and housing; across different forms of procurement; and the work stages, from concept design to detailed design and contract administrator. He has successfully developed a large portfolio of experience across all of the education strands, including nursery, primary, secondary, FE and HE sectors, and in new build and refurbishment/re-modelling.