The University Campus and Mental Health

This is a square image of Louise Boyle who is a lecturer at Glasgow university and is an active researcher in the field of Human Geography

Louise Boyle PhD  08 Nov 19

The increasing numbers of students and staff referred to psychological, counselling and/or occupational health services are indicative of an epidemic of poor mental health in UK higher education (HE). HE students and doctoral researchers consistently feature as a group at higher risk of experiencing depression and anxiety – more than six times the rate of the general population. Between 2012 and 2017, there was a 50% rise in students seeking mental health support. For academic staff, universities have been described as ‘anxiety machines’ due to performance management and surveillance culture.

What is it about these spaces that are having monumental impact on mental health and wellbeing? Arguably, there are structural issue in university culture causing poor mental health to flourish but the architecture and development of learning, teaching and research spaces is a growing cause for concern. While the impact of the built environment on health is well documented, less consideration is given to the relationship between physical environment and mental health and how spaces can enhance wellbeing or induce distress. As such, the built environment rarely features intentional design elements that support and promote mental health and/or social and emotional wellbeing.

Campus Development Reflects the Wider Priorities of UK Institutions

There is changing demand in the use of campus space, for example, student expectations, changes in teaching strategies, demands for collaboration and demands for space. Campus environments are not merely a passive backdrop for work and study; they play a significant role in the social, mental and emotional wellbeing of the people who use them. Therefore, it is imperative that the designers, architects and estate managers of campus spaces, in collaboration with other stakeholders, consider how the built environment can support collective mental and physical health and social wellbeing particularly those located in compact urban settings.

The social fabric of the university campus is reflected in the design, use and management of campus spaces. Recent campus development and design across the UK bears witness to, and further facilitates, the shifting culture in higher education – a shift driven by increasing professionalisation, commercialisation and competition. This is reflected in, for example, the fragmentation of campus spaces into open-plan, multi-purpose, flexible and “break out” spaces that are increasingly digitised to support active, flipped, blended and technology-enhanced learning environments. While intended to increase productivity and promote spontaneity and collaboration (as well as maximise the use of space), there are issues with auditory and visual privacy, distraction, the pressure of ‘evaluative’ environments, sensory processing and feelings of safety, security and belonging.

These developments also fail to consider those for whom such environments are not conducive to learning, for example, those with additional and/or learning support needs and mental health problems. In my doctoral research, exploring the lived experience of social anxiety, spaces of education consistently featured as unsafe spaces and a barrier to learning that impacted participation and quality of life rather than an accessible and inclusive learning environment. Learning environments, like those described above, and the specific pedagogical practices they facilitate (e.g. active learning techniques) have been shown to exacerbate social anxieties, leading to discomfort and distress, impacting student performance and fuelling social isolation.

Spaces Must Be Configured to Support Mental Health and Wellbeing

Mental health and social wellbeing must be written into the design of campus space not solely in response to the mental health crisis but in a way that considers how learning environments facilitate and contribute to mental health, both positively and negatively.

There is a growing awareness that campus spaces (inclusive of learning, study, accommodation and leisure spaces) must cater for a more diverse student body. A growing body of research is starting to address the questions concerning the built environment and mental health and how to enhance wellbeing for students. Here, I’ll discuss some issues that arose in my research with people with social anxiety that may provide food for thought.

Education spaces and learning environments are particularly problematic for people with social anxiety resulting in distress and reduced engagement with learning. Evaluative and active learning environments cause distress but the lack of restorative environments in which to regain a sense of safety frequently featured as problematic.

Some participants felt excluded from their university’s culture. Dan* felt his university encouraged student’s to ‘brand, market and sell’ themselves, such a ‘heavy focus on productivity and collaboration’ meant he became ‘extremely overwhelmed and withdrawn’ to the point he ‘almost dropped out altogether.’

Dan also said, ‘there was no safe spaces or time for pause or reflection […] the university was always buzzing it was so overwhelming’. Additionally, ad-hoc study spaces and open-plan ‘break-out’ areas were too noisy, lacked privacy and were being used by multiple people for multiple activities. He felt ‘constantly exposed’ yet, more isolated.

Even in environments where there is little pressure to interact, e.g. lecture theatres, some experienced high levels of anxiety. Amal discussed feeling trapped in lecture theatres, which caused panic attacks: ‘I thought I’d be okay in lectures, no need [for me] to speak out or draw attention to myself but I was surrounded with no escape. I had to get out and I couldn’t because people would see me.’ Multiple entry and exits points could facilitate discreet movement for people and, by extension, enable a feeling of control over their immediate environment.

Providing dedicated teaching, research and socialising spaces, rather than ad-hoc and multi-purpose areas, with restorative and reflective dimensions is a priority. Having a space to retreat to in the midst of overwhelming and busy campus environments offers safety and refuge. Integration of the natural elements, biophilia, natural light, textures and warmth and is shown to enhance creativity and wellbeing.

Equally important are the spaces in between. Corridors and thoroughfares are not simply a way of getting from A to B but often present real barriers to accessibility and inclusivity. Greater consideration should be given to movement and mobility, particularly at ‘peak’ times, by providing multiple and alternative routes where possible.

While the campus should be configured in diverse scales to satisfy different uses and purposes of the learning environment, accessible and inclusive configuration requires engagement from key user groups, in order to better understand the impact of the university environment on mental health and wellbeing.

Inclusivity Needs to Be at the Core of the Design Process

A healthy campus should encompass diverse spaces to satisfy different people, uses and purposes from the outset. All too often accessibility and inclusivity are ‘bolt ons’. Adopting a more inclusive and extensive approach to the planning, adaptation and design of new learning environments and campus spaces should strive to include a wide spectrum of student voices. Carefully considered co-production can empower groups to participate in order to better understand the impact of the university environment on mental health.

Student consultation is fundamental, and it is imperative that other stakeholders in campus development get it right in order to make the most of student experience and knowledge. Facilitation across student organisations and social groups can provide a wide range of student voices. Gathering diverse student perspectives needs to be carefully thought through as, for example, conducting a large interactive workshop is not an accessible and inclusive environment for students with social anxieties to express their thoughts, ideas and opinions.


The architects of learning environments must integrate accessible and inclusive design approaches as a core part of their process – mental health and social wellbeing should be an integral part of this. Spaces should be designed with people with additional and support needs at the forefront. Only by practicing on-going, more inclusive co-production in the consultation phase, can healthier, accessible and inclusive campus spaces and learning environments truly take shape.


* Pseudonyms are used throughout.

Useful Resources

Piper, R. and Emmanuel, T. (2019) Co-producing Mental Health Strategies with Students: a Guide for the Higher Education Sector, Student Minds, Available at: