Ben Kasdan – How Student Housing Can Support Mental Health

Multi-Housing News

August 18, 2023

Design strategies that relieve stress and enable a sense of community.

There is a mental health crisis in this country, and it’s hitting young people especially hard. In a study of 18,168 college students conducted last year by the College Student Mental Wellness Advocacy Coalition and its research partners, 70 percent of respondents often or always felt stressed out, 63 percent were anxious or worried, and 61 percent felt overwhelmed. All of these can contribute to a negative experience at school—and in life.

“We are seeing a far greater increase in student mental health issues today than ever before,” declared New York City-based psychologist Vijayeta Sinh, whose practice focuses on young adults, particularly students at area colleges.

Sinh attributes the soaring trend line to pandemic stressors, financial pressures, workforce instability, racial and social justice concerns, climate change and, especially, social media. The impacts are across the board too, she notes, from incoming, local freshmen to foreign students to high stress majors and graduate students to minority groups. It’s hard to find and pay for mental healthcare providers, she adds, as coverage may be limited. On a positive note, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of students surveyed said they’d searched for information on how to improve their mental health.

It’s not necessarily likely that they’d found tips on improving their living environment, but that can have a positive impact, as many studies have shown in recent years, and as I shared in my 2020 Wellness by Design book.

“A student’s living environment has an important role in supporting their mental health,” Sinh confirmed. “Whether that includes a preference to live with others and have support, have their own private space, have opportunities to connect with nature, as well as live in a space free of distractions with healthy roommate relationships, our physical environment impacts our mental health. When we are set up for success in our environment, it allows us to thrive.”

The opposite is true, too. “When students face challenges in their housing or living environment, it can add another layer of stress to life and educational responsibilities,” the psychologist pointed out.

Creating environments that nurture residents is something developers and property managers can easily enhance at the student housing communities they build, own and run. The Coalition is partnering with a network of mental health advocates to help support residents’ mental health needs. Shaping their physical environment can make their efforts more successful.

The survey showed a strong correlation between positive mental health and feeling connected to the community. Having a meeting place to gather with fellow students, especially if it’s in a natural environment away from housing, classrooms, books and devices, can provide a mental health boost.

“Large gathering spaces where students can connect are important and are very popular among residents,” observed Gina Cowart, an executive with student housing developer and manager American Campus Communities.

student housing with green walls
Natural elements, like green walls, are shown to support mental health. Image courtesy of BKV

The Natural Environment

Nature or a view of nature can help improve mental health, according to A. Haven Kiers, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Davis.

“A well-designed landscape can sooth an anxious student and provide areas for solitary introspection or social gathering,” Kiers said.

Research has shown that representations of nature have a similar effect, whether that’s landscape photography or design elements like botanically patterned tile or wallpaper.

There are differences between younger and older students in their nature preferences, Kiers has learned. “In general, young adults prefer to actively engage with nature in groups, while mature adults prefer to passively engage with the outdoors solo,” she said.

Younger adults also prefer spectacles, like rushing water, and programmatic activities with nature, while older groups prefer calming spaces. For those, she suggests solitary nooks and niches. Planning accordingly for graduate versus undergraduate architecture can pay dividends.

Kiers teaches a seminar called Nature Rx, currently available on campuses across the country, that introduces students to the wellness benefits of the natural world. She also created a COVID garden on campus in response to the pandemic-related mental health stresses that is still in use today. “Our students were suffering from spending too much time in front of a screen for classes, and, like the rest of the world, desperate to spend time outside,” Kiers explained.

They set up furniture in a courtyard that allowed for outdoor gathering with social distancing. They also set up nooks for small meetings, added screening and seating, and revamped an outdated planter, filling it with plants known for their therapeutic benefits. “Therapeutic-oriented design helps everyone and does so without the stigma that’s often associated with seeking help for mental illness,” Kiers shared. Its beauty is universal and can be incorporated into any outdoor space, she adds.

Designing for wellness can include fauna as well as flora. “I have had a number of colleges and universities enquire about adopting my sheepmowing project—they’re interested in the proven mental health benefits of adding sheep as lawnmowers to their campuses,” the professor commented.

student housing sleeping nook
Designing spaces for better sleep enhances mental health. Image courtesy of KTGY

The Built Environment

Biophilia (defined as love of nature), and access to natural light for student housing is a growing practice for its aesthetic and health benefits. “Many of the elements that we prioritize are now being supported by mental health research data,” observed KTGY Principal Architect Ben Kasdan, who is a fan of indoor/outdoor connections.

This became even more crucial when Kasdan took on a project at the University of California Irvine. “We learned that there had been a tragic increase in suicide attempts on the UCI campus, and so we brainstormed with ACC about ways to incorporate design strategies that would discourage the possibility for using this new building and its parking structure for suicide attempts,” he recalled.

The next logical step was in looking for ways that the community design could improve residents’ mental health, not only prevent the worst outcome. These have included those connections to nature—in views and access—as well as outdoor spaces that support both study and activity, and creating quality sleeping spaces for its student apartments, Kasdan said.

“A 2022 study by the National Institute of Health found a strong connection between sleep deprivation and mental health issues,” Kasdan pointed out, “so we have been specifically focusing on separating the study and/or gaming space from the place where students sleep.” While it can be challenging to find those spaces outside of student apartments, doing so pays dividends in less student isolation, he observes.

Amenities and Interiors

Student living projects need to address “the whole student,” said Kelly Naylor, interior design practice leader for BKV Group, who has also worked on numerous student housing projects. That often means tackling the diverse factors that contribute to mental health stress.

“Many college students are challenged with eating healthy, getting enough sleep, substance misuse and feeling a sense of loneliness,” Naylor observed, noting designing robust fitness centers and indoor-outdoor fitness rooms with classes have strong appeal and marketability.

BKV also caters to students’ emotional needs. “Encouraging self-care and stress reduction for students requires spaces such as music practice rooms, yoga and meditation spaces and quiet reading and study spaces (both indoor and outdoor) to craft a variety of stress-free environments,”  Naylor said.

To address students’ spiritual needs, the designer says, the firm creates spaces zoned for quiet reflection. BKV is also including balconies, operable windows, increased acoustic separation between units and bedroom/living area walls, hammocks, Zen, herb and community gardens, and outdoor water features.

Even smaller complexes without space for some of these helpful amenities can incorporate green walls and wall-mounted fountains, roof gardens with fitness and seating areas, operable windows and acoustical enhancements for sleeping areas.

When I was commuting to New York University four decades ago, the only outdoor space I had was Washington Square Park, and studying in my nearby apartment meant a surfeit of street noise penetrating the windows of my pre-war building. All of these newly styled student housing developments make me almost want to be an undergraduate again! Well, if not for all the related newly skyrocketing tuition bills and student loans!