August 21, 2012

Mental Health Awareness for the Architecture Student.

In August 2012, I was a guest post on Life of an Architect for this entry on mental health awareness and studio culture. I believe that this is an important topic for those struggling and gives hope to other architecture students out there to get help from professional counselling services in order to be your best in studio. 

This post was revised October 9, 2013

Each year, new batch of students will be entering architecture school. On a serious issue, this blog posts attempts to shine a little awareness of mental illness to those students in Architecture school.

Mental Illness & Architecture School

Each year, new batch of students will be entering architecture school. On a serious issue, this blog posts attempts to shine a little awareness of mental illness to For some students, college will be the time when some might struggle to cope with the stresses associated with college life. Many do not realize that at the age of 18-24, is when mental health as well as learning disability issues begin to show up in people more so than any stage in life.

These sleep postcards from my University were
loitering around the architecture building. 

Architecture school has another layer of stress and rigour placed upon students - we are in the studio, perhaps for a day or three, and our limited time makes it more difficult to uphold a healthy lifestyle and maintain our personal relationships with those outside of school. We pull a heck of a lot of all-nighters; we might not eat right, nor get enough sleep. All of which can trigger or worsen symptoms associated with mental health. Becoming enclosed in the highly competitive environment that architecture school breeds has some students feel isolated and lonely.

If you're suffering: Get Help.

The best advice I can give students that struggle or find themselves in a life crisis in the middle of architecture school is to confidentially seek professional help right away. Seek out the professional counselling services your college provides, as part of your tuition in university is actually for ancillary services. Get yourself checked out if you are struggling to cope like the rest of your peers. there is no shame in that. You might be able to know if or when you have a personal crisis when your work is slipping up, you find yourself falling behind, or you might not be happy as you used to be, your friends or classmates around you might notice if you`re not at your best.

I know at first hand that the architecture school culture can easily mask off signs of mental illness for actual students that have a mental illness. I went through counselling when I felt that I could not cope with the workload normally like other students, and I had to drop courses and fail studio to realize that I needed to learn the right strategies in coping with my challenges.

"I'm not gonna get this done!" "I'm gonna fail" "I'm gonna suck"  - We all say it, and for some of us it works and we move on, and we feel that our pessimism and worry fuels us to succeed. What happens when these words become a self-fulfilled prophecy? What happens when these means of self-motivation and push you begin to fail? The problem is when those students that actually worry non-stop with deeper problems may reinforce it to them as the norm and can hurt their esteem, self-worth, and confidence - impacting their mental health and ultimately their performance in architecture school.

As a leader in one of the architecture student groups in my school, I met students that struggled and some have even opened up to me. I know that the architecture studio culture seems unhelpful and unaccommodating to students with mental health issues. There is a stigma going to get help and accommodation in a life crisis. I've heard students talk against students who didn't hand in their assignment on time or did not present their studio. I've seen professors unsympathetic to those students, and a little more biased against them. I highly suggest seeking out help from student counselling services in private because your peers and professors are not able to handle and deal with these types of problems, and may even be unaccommodating and biased towards students with mental health issues. 

Architecture School: Rigid & Conservative.

The culture of Architecture school is very conservative and insular. Fisher(1991) points out three aspects in his editorial Patterns of Exploitation* ; first, architecture is entwined in a macho cut-throat toughen up approach; secondly, a fraternal aspect of our profession and education that likens the workload pressures to hazing; lastly, our field glorifies and gratifies itself to the imagery and lifestyle of the self-suffering artist.

Bringing up the issues of challenging the workload and
the need for a work-life balance is a fight against a torrent on the current  studio culture.

It is a shame that architecture schools are still stuck in a traditional mentality that favours the survival of the fittest and takes the cut throat approach to any student that shows a trace of weakness.  The problem lies when we lose students who are legitimately dedicated, but were overworked and stressed out to the capacity and forcing them to stop. I personally believe that they still have a chance, and that architecture is a life-long learning experience. They'll learn how to be tough and proficient eventually, maybe not as clearly defined by a 4-year or 5-year educational track. I remember talking to one of my professors after convocation, and he even said that sometimes these things take time. Losing students because they are unable to keep up or fall behind due to personal circumstances means another voice or perspective lost in our schools and our profession. It reduces the plurality of insights, the limitless opportunities and potential for our field to progress.

Mental health awareness is starting to get more attention in the media, and this is from years of getting the facts straight. Architecture, as a field, has always looked back and with new knowledge evolved and iterated itself after being informed. The question lies here: how does architectural education see itself in teaching our generation of Millenials with different circumstances and needs than before? I think that architectural education needs to reflect and modify itself on what works and what does not - what is effective and what is not in order to maintain relevancy in this day and age.

What architecture students like us can do.

The right studio culture is needed in any architecture program. If professors have a hard time finding ways to lighten the load while effectively teaching and expecting the level of work at the same time, we as students can act as support systems in architecture studio. Yes, students must learn how to manage their time but if we are there for each other and willing to help and learn from each other (I hate to sound cheesy) studio can be more enjoyable and actually encouraging for all to succeed. I've seen architecture classes that were competitive where studio sections became fortresses for clicks and I have seen years that have been really open to each other. Despite the competitiveness of architecture school I believe that friendly sportsmanship in the realm of studio is of greater value, greater integrity, and importantly greater work.

For More Information:

If you know a friend that is suffering with a mental illness or you are: (US website) I just discovered this link and it actually tackles these issues and informs a lot of students. Also provides some useful help for students to figure out how to PROPERLY help a friend out in a time of need including what NOT to do. (Canadian Website) also provides resources for help.

This show in Canada, The Agenda, actually  sheds light on the growing rate of anxiety among University students and a growing concern for anxiety disorders. Also check out their blog entry
that discusses the episode and provides statistics.

Fisher, Thomas. "Patterns of Exploitation" Progressive Architecture May 1991:9. General Reference Center GOLD, Web Aug 2012.

Related Posts:
The Almighty All-nighter (Part I)
The Almighty All-Nighter (Part II)
Failing and Failure - they're actually both different.


  1. During my thesis semester as a Graduate Student I was more than sleep deprived and under the most insane amount of mental anguish and the feelings of inadequacy and complete lack of confidence. I could have been admitted and looking back on it, I should have gotten medical attention but I pushed through because I wanted to finish and put all of it behind me. The project did come together in the end but it was a time in my life that seriously ranks up with the worst hell-on-earth of an experience. Thank you for bringing this topic to attention as I feel that far too many students are put under the pressure to meet their deadlines which are unfortunately far too tangible and often not reasonable. If it's not done, it's not done and EVERYONE knows it. Architecture school was never like a science exam when you could call it quits, and take your chances by circling 'C' on your exam.

  2. Hi Alicia,

    Thanks for your comment, and actually sharing your experience - it really takes a lot of strength and confidence to open up. I think a lot of students do get those feelings of lack of ability and confidence. I know I had my share of it, and would always see myself as the "last" student, or the worst one especially when I fell behind in school.

    Looking back on the experience, I feel that architecture school does make people stronger since it's structure for learning is greatly different from a regular degree - there's dedication and devotion tied to it; Especially students that do deal with personal issues. Sometimes these experience that break people down, still make them stronger to bite back the next time they are in a stressful scenario. Regards.

  3. I want to tell you THANK-YOU for having the courage to write and bring awareness to an all-too-often avoided subject. I was able to identify with everything you said in a very real way.