Researchers have studied the mental health of students for decades. As early as the 1920s, it was clear that the many pressures of higher education – such as academic requirements, postgraduate plans, and financial concerns – weigh on students. This stress can create new mental health problems and worsen existing ones, such as anxiety and depression. Troubled sleep, restlessness, irritability, and even hopelessness can make college more difficult than it already is.
For all of these reasons, it is worth considering the layout of the campus when choosing a school. The campus design affects the college experience. Students can choose a campus or change their existing routines to support their mental health. Such a consideration is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when new rules and norms have made many students more anxious and depressed than normal.
As a researcher and administrator focused on the student experience, we have analyzed the research of how people interact with their surroundings. Below are five things we think students should look for in college in order to stay as healthy as possible.
1. A quiet place to sleep
A good night's sleep is one building block for staying sane. Sleep deprived students are more sensitive to disturbances in their day, having trouble staying awake and getting on with tasks. You may also feel irritable or easily upset. Significant and common sleep disorders are associated with depression.
The physical environment can affect sleep. Most colleges require students to have at least one roommate, depending on the amenities available. However, the nightly conversation or the lighting of the roommates can be disturbing. Students who live alone have better nightly routines that allow them to get more sleep, but the room a student sleeps in is also important. A room with a comfortable temperature can improve sleep and thereby alleviate depressive symptoms. So make sure you can change the temperature in your room. The eco-friendly Dialynas Hall at Pomona College has air conditioning that can be turned off when the windows are open, while the nearby Sontag Hall has a rooftop garden for fresh air before bed.
Some colleges, like Georgia Tech, encourage students to move into individual dormitories to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Still, it can be difficult to create social distance in dormitories that are designed to encourage social interaction through features such as shared lounges.
2. Places where you can socialize
The students are looking for a supportive campus where they feel wanted and accepted, which is partly possible through the establishment of a social network. For those dealing with mental health issues, fear of social situations often interferes with everyday life, relationships, and school work. Even for people without mental health problems, crowded public spaces can add to stress.
While some students may be tempted to rely on alcohol to relieve social anxiety, a healthier strategy is to specifically find a friend who can make something positive in daily life. Like coffee shops, "third places" are neither in the home nor in the classroom and may provide social support opportunities for those who are disconnected. University programs, like the University of Utah's Student Entrepreneurship Residential Group, can create support networks among strangers.
COVID-19 restrictions will no doubt limit the spontaneous personal interactions that can keep a campus alive for some time. School-approved social or educational events, such as virtual movie nights or skill building workshops, can provide a social exit when regular social life is not easy.
3. Green areas and natural light
Natural light – the kind that streams in through a window on a sunny day – provides vitamin D. This free pick-me-up can increase student focus and productivity while improving mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Spending time in nature is just one way to enjoy natural light. Green areas such as parks and playing fields enable students to escape the stress of everyday life. Those who connect with nature on a regular basis are generally happier than those who don't. One study links the "green" of campus with student satisfaction with their college experience and graduation rates.
There are plenty of schools to choose from when the outdoors is a priority. Colorado College is located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, making it a haven for hikers and climbers, while North Central College is an accredited arboretum. Florida Gulf Coast University is just steps from the sunny Fort Myers beaches.
Using green space in good weather is easy, but students should make a plan to get vitamin D during the colder months. During this time, light therapy that involves sitting under a lamp that emits light that mimics natural light can be a welcome escape from the winter blues.
4. Nearby services and amenities
College students don't just study and sleep as they graduate. Student services and access to off-campus facilities can enhance any student's experience. Campuses that follow this principle are part of a trend in which colleges – often historically located on isolated plots – are systematically integrating into their broader communities and cities, and planning campuses taking into account the daily needs of students.
For students trying to keep up to date, on-campus advice can be great, but these services are often underfunded and understaffed. Student use of communal facilities can have a positive impact on their college experience. While New York City – home to institutions like New York University and Columbia University – is ranked the number one most "walkable" city in the United States, Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the University of Arkansas is located, ranks the lowest for 2020.
With some parts of campus either closed or subject to increased demand during the pandemic, making a list of off-campus resources and emergency service providers can prepare students for mid-semester surprises.
5. Mood-enhancing design
Studies in education show that students' moods and behaviors respond to their learning environments from a young age, which affects both their mental health and their academic performance. The design of a building can influence how people act, feel and understand their surroundings. The colors used in the design of campus buildings can make people feel warm, cool, calm, invited, or excluded. For example, while red can generate energy, green can be relaxing, which can affect the functionality of a space for students.
In addition to color choices, students' learning environments should include views that allow their mind and eyes to pause. Something as simple as a landscape art poster hung indoors can relieve stress. Many universities, like Loyola University Chicago, have art galleries that can break up otherwise office- and classroom-intensive views and take a break from a morning of PowerPoint presentations.
If the campus or local art gallery is closed, students can consider creating their own galleries. Many websites curate collections of prints and original works that won't break the bank, and craft stores stock canvas, paint, and other materials to help bring out your inner monet.
The Campus Mental Health Crisis and How Colleges Can Address It
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5 Things To Look For On A College Campus That Will Benefit Mental Health (2020 Sep 9)
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