Design Impact: Mental Health and Wellness

Design Impact: Mental Health and Wellness

Across the country there is a troubling spike in the number of college students with stress-related illnesses and mental health conditions. The American College Health Association, a nationwide advocate for college and university health, publishes the National College Health Assessment, an annual survey of students’ behaviors and perceptions of health topics. In their most recent survey, half of all students reported feeling “very lonely” and that “things were hopeless.” More than 80 percent felt “overwhelmed” and “exhausted.”

With feelings of loneliness and isolation on the rise, how can design promote social interaction and participation? 

 University of California San Franicsco, Mission Hall Global Health & Clinical Sciences Building

Social Connection

Throughout campuses, both inside and outside buildings, we can establish a network of gathering spaces for students to be alone amongst others and together in groups; we can give them the ability to regulate their own levels of engagement and, through design, address issues of loneliness. Increasing proximity and accessibility through physical layouts and circulation systems, like common areas with flexible seating in high-traffic locations where people naturally convene, help to nurture our social side.

Choice and Control

We can also reinforce students’ sense of control by giving them the opportunity to observe activities taking place inside of rooms before committing to spending any time in one. Open lines of sight to common areas and use of transparent walls reduce the anxious anticipation of making “the right choice.”

 University of California Davis, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing


Just as long walks help to clear the mind, circulation paths within a building that interconnect with public spaces and inspire exploration can have the same effect.  Thoughtful organization of the building program can encourage walking between destinations and simultaneously strengthen social connections among building occupants. Wellness can be integrated into the campus fabric with programmed outdoor spaces that act as building extensions, active design strategies that encourage movement, while supporting engagement with others. 

 San Francisco State University, Mashouf Wellness Center


The intensity of college life and the constant exposure to new people and ideas can feel overwhelming. In the transition from high school to college some students feel lost in the crowd, so it is important to provide space where individuals can just “be.” Tranquil settings with low sensory stimulation, visual / aural privacy, as well as exposure to nature, help us to replenish cognitive energy and gather peace of mind. New types of space devoted to therapeutic use – from quiet rooms, to rest zones, personalized immersive environments, and sleep pods – provide respite for overstimulated, anxious, or sleep-deprived students. 

Collision Lab at Cornell Tech 

Connection to Nature

Likewise, biophilic design attributes that captivate our senses, stimulate the mind, and serve as positive distractions can also boost our psychological well-being. Access to daylight, views of nature, calming color palettes, natural materials, displays of art, greenery, and patterns with organic form, are just some of elements within the built environment that can enhance our restorative processes and help us relax. 

 Sonoma Academy Janet Durgin Guild & Commons

As students develop long term healthy lifestyles, they learn and take inspiration from buildings and landscapes that embody sustainable design principles. The interdependence of people and place necessitates improving the health of both if we are to support a culture of well-being on campus. Planners and architects can’t control for all the physiological and environmental factors that impact human behavior, but we can bring awareness of how design affects us on a biological and psychological level to our campus clients.

1 – In a National College Health Assessment conducted in 2017 by the American College Health Association, half of all students reported that at some point in the survey year they felt “very lonely” and that “things were hopeless.” More than 80 percent felt “overwhelmed” and “exhausted.”