The Graduate Architecture, Landscape, and Design Student Union (GALDSU) at the University of Toronto recently published the results of its first mental health survey, which asked students to reflect on their experience at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. Many past and present students have met the findings, which paint a blatantly bleak picture of the architecture student experience, with little to no surprise. The report brings the issue of poor mental and physical health in architecture schools to the forefront of our consciousness; however, the cool response it has elicited undercuts the initiative and raises important questions. If we were already aware of the problem, why hasn't change already been initiated? Will this always be the accepted, brutal reality of architecture education?
The student responses identify infrastructure as a significant challenge and suggest that improvements to mental and physical health could be made with the development of cleaner, larger, and quieter work spaces. Students also voiced their concern over a shortage of amenities, including too few vacant computers in labs as well as a lack of available, inexpensive food options. Indeed, one of the greatest ironies of architecture school is often having to study in the most uninspiring, poorly designed, and outdated spaces on campus.
However, although the study insinuates improvements to infrastructure and amenities is a sure way to improve student health, it would take great resources to make these kinds of changes, which most schools do not have immediate access to. Acquiring such funds would require time and in all likeliness, hiked fees for students, which many might be opposed to — especially if they are not going to be the ones who reap the benefits.
In order to make improvements, there would certainly need to be a lot of understanding and dialogue between students, faculty, and personnel from the university at large. However, the survey identified student apathy towards faculty and administration members as a major issue; the majority of student stress was directly attributed to their authority figures. Survey respondents recognized their largest sources of stress as being "workload, lack of organization from the faculty, coinciding deadlines, and negative interactions with members of the faculty." Only 3% felt as though faculty was doing enough to address mental health issues amongst students.
When trying to answer the question of why architecture schools remain such mentally and physically draining places to study, this apathetic attitude towards faculty is an important factor to consider. When students feel disconnected from the communities they are supposed to be a part of, they may be even more hesitant to speak up.
Moreover, in order to keep up with the stressful and demanding workload, survey respondents confessed to having developed many bad habits. The majority of students admitted to regularly pulling all-nighters, skipping meals, forgoing extracurricular social activities, and rarely exercising in order to finish projects on time. Bad habits are formed when a specific behavior results in a favorable outcome, leading to the conditioned repetition of these actions. In these cases, the positive reinforcement comes in the form of producing a better project on time, which evidently outweighs the adverse affects on mental and physical health these behaviors also produce for respondents.
While the study does not suggest a reason for why students would choose the positive over the negative, the choice could be a product of the environment. When we see our peers acting a certain way and perceive it as the norm, we feel justified perpetuating the behavior. This is especially magnified in architecture school as students tend to do most of their work in the infamous studio, constantly surrounded by their peers.
Imagine if changes were implemented to remedy all of the issues regarding infrastructure, amenities, and communication. Would students continue to raise the bar, maintaining their bad habits to produce even better work? Or would they finally have the time to lead more balanced and healthy lifestyles? Even if the tangible problems were completely resolved, is it simply impossible to change today’s architecture school culture? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.