Mental Health Awareness for the Architecture Student

Bob Borson —  August 23, 2012 — 9 Comments

 Today’s post is brought to you by Ulysses Valiente, an author and recent graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Architectural Science from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He maintains the blog “The Underdog Architecture Student’s Blog”  which is one of the architectural blog sites that I keep in my RSS feed. He wrote this article on his site the other day that caught my attention and with school starting soon and a fresh batch of architecture students about to be indoctrinated into studio life, I thought re-posting it here would be a good thing, possibly even an important thing. 

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Architecture Studio

September is almost here! A new batch of students will be entering architecture school again. On a serious issue, I wanted to write this article now, to shine a little awareness of mental illness to those beginning architecture school.

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Mental Illness & Architecture School

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, that the college years, is when mental health as well as learning disability issues begin to show up in people more so than any stage in life.

Sleep Cards

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

Architecture school has another layer of stress and rigor placed upon its students – we are in the studio, perhaps for a day or three, our limited time makes it more difficult to uphold a healthy lifestyle and maintain our personal relationships with those outside of architecture. We pull a heck of a lot of all-nighters, might not eat right, and not getting enough sleep – all which can trigger or worsen symptoms associated with mental health. With the highly competitive environment that architecture school has some students feel isolated and lonely.

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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 seek professional help right away, and confidentially. Seek out the professional counselling services your college provides – part of your tuition in university is actually for ancillary services. Get yourself checked. there is no shame in that. You might be able to know if or when you have a personal crisis – your work is slipping up, you’re falling behind, 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 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 stress.

“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? The problem is when those students that actually worry non-stop with deeper problems may reinforce it to them as the norm and can hit their esteem, self-worth, and confidence – impacting their mental health.

As a leader in one of the architecture student groups in my school, I met students that struggled and some even opened up to me. I know that the architecture studio culture seems unhelpful and not accommodating 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. Which is why I suggest to seek out help in confidence/privately, because unfortunately our studio culture and our professors are not accustomed to this and are not welcoming to these issues.

 

Sleep is for the weak

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Architecture School: Rigid & Conservative

The culture of Architecture school is  very conservative and insular culture. Author Thomas 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, how we glorify and seek to personalize ideals of the self-suffering artist.

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sleep is for the weak (detail)

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 an old school 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 is 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 learning experience – they’ll learn how to be tough and proficient eventually, maybe as clearly defined by a 4-year or 5-year educational track. 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 be portrayed 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, 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.

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What architecture students like us can do.

The right studio culture is needed in an 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 years 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 sportsmanship in the realm of studio is of greater value and integrity.

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For More Information:

If you know a friend that is suffering with a mental illness or you are:

http://www.halfofus.com/ (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.

http://www.camh.ca (Canadian Website) also provides resources for help.

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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.

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

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If you would like to contact Ulysses directly, you can email him at underdogarchstudent@gmail.com

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  • Marcia

    Great article. The architecture course is extremely unhealthy and can cause students, who would not otherwise be prone to mental health problems, to become unwell, because no matter how hard some students work, they can never do enough to gain even the lowest pass mark in project work in order to pass the course. And project work is extremely subjective – just as one person might like a building another person might hate it, just like a work of art. The problem is not that the course is too hard, but is because it’s too easy and totally subjective. Architecture students are NEVER tested that they are doing their own drawings. At no point is a student ever requested to say draw up a section from a plan under exam conditions. Some people gain passes without touching pen to paper (I have known several) by handing in work done entirely by someone else, yet other students (disliked for some reason by tutors) have to be the most talents designers and draftsmen/women in the world to gain a pass and even then they can be failed if the tutor/external examiner just doesn’t like the look of them. Students stand next to their drawings and discuss them and the whole thing is very personal. There is no clear methodology of marking and so any mark can be dished out at the very end, earlier marks can be disregarded and students are judged on their personality every bit as much as their work. Read my own experiences of studying architecture in the uk in my book, STUDENT ARCHITECT (for sale on Amazon or Smashwords) or goto the blog http://theappealofarchitecture.blogspot.co.uk/. I have been to three schools and have carried out a lot of research and as far as I know all the school operate more of less the same system of assessment. My reason for writing this book is to warn young people of the dangers that lurk at architecture school and that training to be an architect is best avoided if you need to earn a decent/secure living. It can be healthy studying difficult subjects (even if you fail them) but a course where you learn very little and success is based on factors you have no control over can only lead to stress and depression.

    • Manny

      I totally agree with you here. The course is so subjective. And I believe the marking is completely unfair. I am marked by the same tutors for three semesters, and they are more harsh markers than others. Even worse is the first semester, it was a group portfolio submission and since its not the same markers per student, the marks ranged from a 2:2-1st Honours with the SAME portfolio! Appealing did absolutely nothing, and obviously some favouritism going around. That is a jump of 2 classes difference with the same submission. It is ridiculous.

      It is all so upsetting, as it’s a course now dependent on the the tutor’s theory, the tutor’s likings, and our personality. With all the regular crits, and work progress, and expectations from tutors and also group members, anxiety is one of my biggest problems right now. I believe the education is a mess as of many other students. With ongoing petitions and student reps trying to sort out what architecture school should actually be, nothing is changing, or changing way too slow. I don’t believe that the architecture course needs to be 6-7 years long, because at the end of the day, we students teach ourselves, find information and resources ourselves, do everything ourselves, even organise site visits ourselves. All tutors do is give their own opinions. All our tuition fee for the university, when at the end of the day we aren’t really being taught anything, we teach ourselves.

      More important is learning in practice, in real life work. The education system for architecture is really not a stepping stone for us into practice. And more so, these practices seem to be looking for render and cad monkeys these days. What a tough generation we live in.

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  • Gracie 93

    This was a wonderful article highlighting things that are incredibly entwined with my own experience. In my final year of an architectural degree, the break down of a relationship caused me to become heavily depressive. A student who has once been happy-go-lucky, diligent and incredibly dedicated suddenly found herself unable to focus, fighting to get out of bed, and fatigued to excess. Within a couple of weeks, she was hugely behind having accomplished little to no work. Terrified, and still emotionally distraught by the break up, she started to panic. She also balanced a part-time job, and they were starting to ask her for more hours. Performing badly at work, behind on architecture studies and incredibly emotionally distraught, her anxiety quickly increased in to absolute panic and before she knew what was happening, she had descended in to a mixed-episode – however, she was unaware of her Bipolarity and so had no idea why she was suddenly suffering constant panic-attacks, terrified to leave the house and unable to do anything but ruminate about suicide and self-hate.

    Clearly exceedingly distressed, she STILL continued to attempt to maintain her life. However, it quickly became clear that she was in no state to be capable of doing so. Her boss was growing furious over her work absence – caused by her need to catch up on her studies therefore sickness calls – her tutors were growing annoyed at her lack of production, and her peers did nothing but judge relentlessly, calling her ‘lazy, weak, pathetic’ and my personal favourite, ‘crazy’.

    By week eight of the first semester, she withdrew from the courses due to her admission to a mental institution where she would take two months to recover. She would return back to semester two only two weeks after discharge, taking fewer papers in order to maintain her need to recover mentally. However, her pairs judged her as ‘unfit, weak, crazy’ and a ‘fuck up’, and proceeded to look at her differently. Most of these students were from rich backgrounds full of wealth and ignorance – I however, was a middle class student who worked a part-time job to support myself, had little background support and now had a mental disorder.

    While these students judged, I realized something: there was a CLEAR trend in those drawn to the architecture industry, and most were addicted to narcissism, wealth, reputation and ‘better than thou’. Most had never had to fend for themselves. And yet they looked at me as this weak, pathetic person.

    I knew differently.

    That semester, I started a society for Mental Health Awareness. I got funding from the university, drew attention to the cause, wrote and affiliated myself to the school of psychology and various other health associations.

    Suddenly I was the president of a thriving society, and getting many requests to do talks on MI. I felt an overwhelming inclination to pursue Health Sciences, and Neurobiology, but i knew Architecture was an ingrained passion and something I was gifted at.

    The following year, I had to do part time study of my architecture degree to make up for the courses I had missed. I requested an admission from the university to then start part-time studies of a bachelor of Health Science degree, which I continued with for the next three years both part time and full time.

    I worked as a Revit technician during these studies and made a good income.

    I then returned to do a Master’s in Architecture, and wrote my thesis on “Architecture and it’s Influence in Mental and Psychological Health”.

    I was given an A+ for my thesis and told it was considered ground-breaking. I was surprised as I expected it to be a common focus – however as explained here, mental health/illness is rarely broached in Architectural Studies as it seems foreign to the chauvinistic beliefs set forward by an outdated education mentality.

    Had I given up, ad many people suggested, i certainly would not be where I am now.
    I am lucky to be in a rare niche of architecture, with a focus on emphasizing architecture’s HUGE contribution to health issues, including physical, mental and emotional well-being.

    It is time for architecture schools and professionals to step up their games. We will advance this industry much faster if we DRAW on the VULNERABILITIES of society, instead of focusing so much on the ‘TO BE VULNERABLE IS TO BE WEAK’ mentality architecture seems drawn to promote.

    • Underdog Architecture Student

      Hi Gracie 93,

      Architecture is a tough environment, and from my experience there is quite a stigma to being known as the student that got held back which makes it harder to work in group projects or build rapport with peers when dropped into a new graduating class.

      Seeking counselling and getting accomodation as an architecture is difficult. Either the workload will be stressful to the point that you can get mired on it and won’t have time to seek help. And for those students, I think they should so that they can work on things to better manage their life and perform better in studio. I fell back two years and I made the conscious choice and effort for my final years in university to seek help at student counselling services – but I only was able to because I had a reduced courseload – not many are students who struggle are able or willing to do this, and once they fall back they give up and study something else.

      I think there needs to be a change in viewing work-life balance in education and in the field and I am lucky to work at a firm that embraces a work-life balance. I heard from a friend who’s doing a masters at one of my prospective schools mention that there is a student workforce on mental health and it’s good to know there is more who are now reconsidering and questioning the harsh work ethic and educational approach that is becoming dated and challenged.

      regards,
      The Underdog Architecture Student’s Blog

      (ps, would love to read your thesis!)

  • Amy B

    Really fantastic post ! Students and architectural professionals rarely execute the ‘two heads are better than one’ philosophy, and we wander why we are becoming threatened as a profession. I.can.not.stand.students and colleagues, that dont lend a hand where they can. This survival of the fittest mentality is so evident in this industry and I cant see it changing as long as there are so many sole practitioners in this sector by nature. Graduating from architecture school is a little too much like the opening scenes from the movie ’300′ for my liking.

  • Amanda

    A teacher of mine said “The C student becomes the A student’s boss.” Why? The C-student wheels, deals and manages time and understands what the minimum requirements are. The most difficult part of architectural studies is learning there will never be enough time.
    That said, I studied in a 3 year Architectural Technology program. I swore off all-nighters after the first year in an honest effort to be more organised. I excelled in my final semester when I adjusted my sleep schedule to my studio schedule and enjoyed a few weeks of sleeping aproximately 4 PM – 2 AM. Architecture-school culture and peer pressure often becomes a hysteria. I definitely saw a few burnouts. It’s great to see this article being circulated.

  • ericd1112

    Yeah, I know…but.
    Certainly there are ways to moderate the culture of all-nighters, but it should be pointed out that architecture professors have at least two very good reasons for requiring impossible amounts of work from their students: quantity and quality. You have to learn how to be fast and you have to learn how to make sure that what you have at your deadline is the most critical, the most essential elements needed to convey your intent – and there is simply no Cliff Notes way to get there.
    The reality – having done this for three decades now, and also having taught the subject – is that architects are required to make a blizzard of decisions at a rate of speed exceeded perhaps only by professional race drivers (the consequences of whose decision errors are admittedly both harsher and more immediate).
    In addition to the lessons about, and explorations of, what design should be, design crits also have a responsibility to get you to learn your own best answer to the how-to-do-it questions as well. Students need to get fast at making design decisions, and the mountain of decisions that you have to make need to have at least some logical and defensible framework, if for no other reason than that you need to be able to explain to a client in detail why s/he should spend enormous sums of money a certain way. You need to get fast and it’s not something you can learn how to do right away, certainly not even in a single semester.
    You also need to know how to prioritize. That’s critical and the only way to get students to learn how to do that effectively is to give them no alternative but to have to choose what they think is most important and leave the rest behind. Perhaps my best design teacher, the late Tom Schumacher, said that what a student doesn’t draw shows him at least as much as what the student does draw. If you give students way more to do than any mortal could finish on time, students are forced to prioritize. Then the critic needs to help them understand where they made optimal choices about what to depict and what alternatives may have helped support there thesis more persuasively.
    Now yes, this is where peer pressure can overwhelm people because students in studio together are nearly always competitive to some degree, each trying to ensure that they get more of it done than the others, fueled of course by the omnipresent reality of grades. Hence the zillion all-nighters.
    But learning how to prioritize, how to see the assignment as a whole and make sure that what you have at the end is best suited to conveying your intent is a critical skill that, well, if you know another way to teach it fire away but architects who have learned in studios are remarkably productive and efficient in developing designs for a reason.
    It’s a big, tough world out there and we are paid to develop and bring value to a situation, value that can be of evident and tangible benefit to our clients, in ways that transcend simple building-making. The delta between enclosure and architecture can only be filled by an architect who brings a combination of inspiration and perspiration. It isn’t easy and it has to be fast but, again as someone who’s done it for a few decades now, it is so freakin’ fun – how many days have I marveled, “you mean I actually get PAID to do this?” – it is oh so worth it.

    • Ceci Pipe

      On the other hand, taking on more work than a person or office can handle is bad management. Prioritising is good, overloading means you’ve made some bad decisions somewhere along the way. That whole “crunch” thing happens in many workplaces, and can usually be avoided.

      Becoming good at crunching doesn’t solve those issues, simply alleviates the symptoms.