According to the latest survey carried out by the World Health Organization - WHO, in 2019 there were more than 700,000 suicides worldwide. In Brazil, records approach 14,000 cases per year, that is, on average 38 people commit suicide per day. In this context, “Yellow September” was created in Brazil, the largest anti-stigma campaign in the world that encourages everyone to actively act in the awareness and prevention of suicide, a topic that is still seen as taboo.
Among the countless efforts that can be made to assist this movement, such as supporting organizations, breaking down stigmas and advocating for mental health care, architecture is able to assume an especially important role, presenting design decisions that promote the well-being of its users in a skillful activity defined by the understanding of both structural physics and human interaction. Our everyday experience from the monotonous to the spectacular can therefore create order and inspiration from forms and materials that become the stage for human activities. Architecture's ability to influence the physical and mental health of people who live, work and play in the environments created by architects is implicit in these goals.
Taking that into account, it is understood that the built environment can encourage us to develop different feelings, either negatively, such as increased stress, or positively, helping to deal with it. Situations that are even more potentiated when it comes to people facing a mental disorder, since the more serious a mental illness, the deeper the tendency to become overly reactive to certain environments and understimulated by others.
In this sense, recognizing the wide range of strategies that can be used in the design process, as well as appreciating the subjective nature of architecture, in which each person can experience different sensations in the same space, some specific points always come to the fore when talking about architecture and mental health.
In 2008, Park and Mattson conducted a randomized clinical trial with surgical patients, evaluating the therapeutic effects of plants in hospital rooms. Ninety patients were studied over a six-month period in Korea. The rooms were identical, located on the same floor, the only difference being the presence or absence of plants. As a result, the experimental group had lower levels of anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate. That is, when considering the presence of plants in hospital environments, architects can assist in the physical and mental recovery of users. This same conclusion is valid for other approaches related to natural aspects within built spaces, such as access to ventilation and solar lighting, as biophilia presents.
These experiences can be measured through objective concepts such as thermal, visual and acoustic comfort being translated into tables with acceptable levels of celsius (temperature), lux (lighting) and decibels (noise). However, being able to understand and interpret these numbers, materializing them in functional and pleasant spaces, is a challenge as different requirements can be contradictory. For example, focusing on creating beautiful views and spaces that are brightly lit by sunlight can clash with ambient glare and overheating.
Therefore, an architecture — and also urban design — that is concerned with the mental health of its users comes from those who understand the purpose of the structure being designed, as well as the people who will use it, taking into account feelings and emotions.
Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space bases the spatial properties on the influence of the constitution of the being, more precisely on its psychological aspects. In the term called topophilia (preference or sentimental connection that someone has in relation to certain places) the author unravels the duality between spaces of hostility and happy spaces, analyzing the values and feelings aroused by them as protection, refuge and tranquility. Therefore, the book reinforces the fundamental role of spaces in everyday life and experience, as well as in the constitution of affective memory. In this sense, architecture must also respond to subjective elements — as important as other aspects — by fostering sensations that are fundamental to the mental health of its users, such as belonging, security, readability, privacy and the creation of memories. This answer can be given in different ways, whether in the construction technique chosen, in the morphology, in the materials and textures, in the relationships with the surroundings and the community, among others.
It is a fact that good architecture will not provide magic cures for people with mental health issues. Nor will it replace advances in science and medicine. However, offering comfortable, welcoming and well-designed spaces, where users feel happy and safe, is a way to contribute to everyday happiness, not only when it comes to buildings specifically intended for the treatment of mental illness, but also public spaces that inspire security and legibility as well as small interventions that serve as a welcoming breath amidst the chaos.
Next, check out projects of different scales and programs that contribute – each in its own way – to maintaining the mental health of its users.
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Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 05, 2022.