There has been a dramatic increase in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide in our younger generations. We are witnessing a rise in safety concerns stemming from preventable mental health issues while also seeing how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) can affect childhood developmental. Communities are questioning how they can aid their younger members and provide positive environments to help overcome daily struggles, openly discuss any issues a child faces, and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. The easiest and most obvious answer is by re-examining today’s schools and how curriculum and design they can provide the safety, trust, and understanding needed. Architect Matt Fink, AIA, LEED BD+C teamed up with Gabriella Mullady Fink, a mental health professional and program coordinator at CBH Care, and Dr. Matthew Murphy, superintendent of Ramsey Schools and Mental Health First Aid instructor, to provide a voice and vision on mental health awareness, creating positive learning environments in Bergen County, New Jersey.
The first step in destigmatizing mental health and providing the proper support is by creating an open conversation, says Gabriella. Together, Matt, Gabriella, and Dr. Murphy have teamed up to tackle this topic from all angles and demonstrate that the more we talk about it, the more comfortable students will be asking for help. According to Dr. Murphy, school districts are doing their part by introducing mental health education into the curriculum. Unfortunately, not all public school districts across the country have the same focus on mental health as the Ramsey Schools in Bergen County. As superintendent, Dr. Murphy recognizes how lucky they are and how many other public schools aren’t always equipped with the resources to tackle such challenges.
To assist in these efforts, where districts are not able to fulfill mental health initiatives, architecture, often viewed as the “third teacher”, helps bridge the gap. Architects like Matt Fink are working with schools and mental health professionals to create nurturing spaces that kids can feel safe in – a place that is truly a home away from home. Certain architectural design choices, such as varied learning spaces and inclusion of biophilic elements can help reconnect the body and cognitive function, encouraging better mental health and happiness.
We also need to realize that schools are no longer the stark, institutional boxes of the past but thoughtful, engaging, community-infused spaces that should lend to the goals of the community it serves. Before Matt begins the design of an educational space, he engages the community and key stakeholders in a brainstorming session to personalize the learning environment. Utilizing basic building elements, like pipe cleaners and play-doh, together they determine the features that will enrich learning and encourage happiness in the classroom. These creative and thoughtfully designed spaces can create a connection among students and their peers in a technological age where connection and critical social skills may be lacking. As Gabriella points out, these important skills are taught through environment and are fueled by a sense of belonging and community. Mental health isn’t just an individual effort; it’s a community effort. When we’re all educated in these areas, we can recognize when there’s a problem, and have the resources to work through it.
While not every school can be the state-of-the-art design we all wish for, there are ways to create the positive and safe environments we need. We are addressing the needs of general safety through lock downs and intruder procedures, successfully retrofitting old buildings to meet modern standards and incorporating creative design elements. Though many agree that if more school districts took a proactive approach, rather than reactive, they could see positive results such as less violence and more student engagement and happiness. These concepts are relatively new so it’s difficult to measure what the long term impact of these changes will be, but from a mental health perspective, the more we recognize the signs early on, the earlier we can start to make changes.
Want to learn more about the school safety efforts from Matt, Gabriella, and Dr. Murphy? Check out the full interview below.