Young Adults are Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis

Young adults heading off to college often experience a rude awakening when living on their own for the first time. The dramatic transition toward increased independence and autonomy thrusts young people into a new reality, far from the stability of their parents’ oversight and guidance. Former university psychologist Dr. Beth Staehling noted that teens transitioning to the independence of college life often struggle to cope with even common disappointments. A breakup or poor grade may become overwhelming without additional social or professional support.

The World Health Organization recognizes that physical, emotional, and social changes can leave adolescents vulnerable to mental health issues, leading them to higher instances of social exclusion, discrimination, stigma, educational difficulties, risk-taking behaviors, physical ill-health, and human rights violations. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention report published in 2022 found a rising number of teens and young adults are experiencing depression and feelings of hopelessness. For example, between 2009 and 2019, the number of college students considering suicide tripled and the number of those attempting suicide grew nearly four times.

Some universities and student housing developers have noticed this alarming trend and are creating programs to address the mental health crisis facing young people. However, often the types of spaces necessary for implementing the desired programming are not adequately accommodated for within typical building designs. Additionally, challenges brought on by new roommate relationships and insufficient support for healthy lifestyle choices can further exacerbate students’ mental health.

Meanwhile, housing costs have increased dramatically throughout the United States. From 1990 to 2020, the average room rate for a student housing unit within public four-year institutions increased 111%, adjusted for inflation. As student housing developers consider avenues for reducing construction costs, often the strategies employed can sacrifice the experience and wellness of the student residents. The spaces we live in have a significant impact on how we feel, and this should be at the forefront of consideration throughout the design process, particularly in spaces as impactful as student housing. By incorporating design strategies that encourage people to interact with one another and the spaces around them, we can create spaces that can mitigate isolation, anonymity, and lack of self-care. Additionally, color selection, biophilic design features, natural daylighting, and integration of wellness-focused amenity spaces support a calming environment, leading to student success.

How Do We Challenge Student Housing Design Assumptions?

Among the more than 14,000 student housing beds designed by KTGY, all include unique parameters, however many design commonalities arise: units are typically organized in apartment-style configurations, allowing students to eat, sleep, and study without leaving their unit; amenity spaces are generally large and concentrated in a few locations; and corridors are often long and fully enclosed.

As young people head off to college, mental health challenges put their educational success at risk. The Thrive Hall design concept proposes a student housing solution for supporting the mental health and wellness of young residents through design by focusing on seven distinct design objectives: creating community, reinforcing community, connection to nature, quality rest, active lifestyle, intentional study spaces, and mental health support. By reconfiguring the typical student housing model to encourage social connectedness, promote healthy habits, and increase exposure to the outdoors and natural light, the Thrive Hall concept exhibits how design can better support the needs of today’s students.


Creating Community: Housing Pods

Research by the British evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, shows that groups beyond 150 individuals lead to an inability for group members to “function effectively in social relationships.” Ideally, groups of 50 or fewer friends, including 15 good friends and five intimate friends, support healthy relationships. By creating pods of rooms and shared spaces intended to house 30 individuals, student housing can support the formation of strong friendships and connection.


Reinforcing Community

Using the principles enlisted for modern co-housing, the Thrive Hall concept minimizes the bedroom and unit area and creates shared living, dining, kitchen, and study areas for use by the residents within a 30-student pod. A 2017 study by Oxford University found that people who frequently eat with others are more likely to feel happy and satisfied with their lives.

Intentional Study Spaces

As the brain creates associations between different experiences, the stress and stimulation linked to studying negatively effects the brain’s ability to rest. Removing desks from within the sleeping rooms and relocating them to shared spaces within the students’ pod creates distance between spaces for productivity and spaces for relaxation, increasing the effectiveness of both. Additionally, with shared study spaces, a diversity of seating configurations creates flexibility for various study needs. For example, lounge seating replicates coffee shop studying, and enclosed study rooms cater to group studying.


Quality Rest

A 2021 report by the CDC outlined the strong correlation between sleep and mental health. Within the study, those who averaged less than six hours of sleep per night were about 2.5 times more likely to experience mental health issues than those averaging more than six hours per night. In student housing situations, incompatible roommate habits may hinder the length and quality of rest, leading to both physical and mental health issues.

Connection to Nature: Daylighting and Outdoor Spaces

Access to nature has been found to improve both physical and mental health. Improved sleep, reduced stress, increased happiness, and reduced negative emotions are a few of the benefits linked to natural environments. Additionally, correlations have been made between green environments and an increase in attention, memory, and creativity. Ongoing exposure to daylight boosts serotonin and natural circadian rhythms leading to improved sleep quality.


Encouraging an Active Lifestyle

A strong correlation connects physical health with mental well-being. For example, encouraging students to be active by taking the stairs or using the onsite fitness facilities can mitigate long-term physical health issues. Likewise, serotonin levels increased by regular physical activity improves digestion, sleep, mood and physical healing.


Mental Health Support

Even as mental health challenges become more than they can handle alone, students may feel intimidated to reach out for the help they need. Student housing developments can repurpose leasing spaces during the leasing off-season to provide counseling rooms and spaces for classes and seminars. By incorporating mental health support spaces within the student housing development, students become familiar with the help available to them and the barriers to access are reduced. Multiple entry points and privacy glass provide additional discretion for students who wish to keep their mental health needs private.