I just submitted my folio, the 2 weeks leading up to a folio submission are always a slog. I was hoping to feel a sense of achievement, relief and enthusiasm. But after doing this for 5 years, I don’t get the same pleasure out of finishing a folio, I just feel empty, like what do I do now? I have a week off then I go back to full time work. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. During folio I want it to finish it as soon as possible, like an OCD problem, I can’t think about anything else unless I’ve completed the task I want to. Now even more than ever, I am starting the realise that architecture school enforces this way of thinking. It breeds this culture I’ve been banging on about for the past 6 weeks. Is it normal to get anxious about the work you do during semester but at least you’re doing something vs becoming a potato during the holidays wishing you had something to do? I’ve come to the realisation that I spend so much time immersing myself in architecture that I have lost all the hobbies I’ve had before architecture school. Maybe this is normal, maybe it’s not, maybe its just getting older, maybe it’s a quarter life crisis, I don’t know.
Image Source: www.arch-student.com
That was part of a discussion I had with my psychologist last week.
The key notion that emerged was training to behave in a certain way without realising it. Architecture school is as much about the mental side, as it is the academic side, that’s something no one ever sheds light on. My psychologist, who I have been seeing intermittently for the past 2 years, says she’s seen it all before, but she doesn’t devalue its point of concern. Referred to me by student experience officer at UWA, Alicia Brown, she deals with mental health issues amongst university students. She says that of all students she treats, architecture students are a “unique breed” and make up more than 25% of her patients[i]. Why this is, she says its significant.
“It’s an art and a science with no clear definition between the two. The Subjectivity of the course, its relatively long completion time and relatively poor job prospects put it in a category where it really is only a course students enter into if they love it and have always had flare for it. Because of these reasons we see students get frustrated by it because there is always confliction between loving it and being realistic”[ii].
The point of being trained to behave in a certain way without realising it makes perfect sense. If I compare myself to the first year of architecture school, the differences are immediately noticeable. Co-curricular activities, socialising, even just hobbies – I don’t do them as much, if at all. There’s no doubt university and the teachings of the architectural course matures you, but I simply don’t do the things I used to love because I feel, and let me emphasise the word feel, like I don’t have time for them even though I probably do. At orientation in first year, I remember a masters students at the time saying, in order to get the most out of the architectural education, you need to be 100% immersed in it. At the time I didn’t believe him but looking back, he had a point. The culture and environment of architectural education do this to you. Whether you realise it or not – is this what makes good architects?
If you love what your doing is it still study? Sure, its cliché but its appropriate. But just because you love what you do, doesn’t mean its always good for you mentally. Ive come to realise that because you enjoy it, you care about more, you become anxious and when it doesn’t work like it should, you become frustrated, mentally fatigued and anxious. These are all issues that, I’m sure, are relatable to us as architecture students. I don’t want to be one sided and bias but surely accountants don’t get that drive and “OCD” to do accounting.
I suppose the reason I am writing about this is to shed light on the personal issues I and many others have faced in the past 5 years and their attribution to architectural study. But this isn’t designed to be a narrative of my experience, but a conversation starter to provoke thought about the ways in which we can address mental health within the architectural school environment. We all hide the issues of mental health even though they are apparent as a collective and are written about commonly on architectural blogs[iii]. The past 6 weeks have been based both on research and personal narrative but now I want to address case studies of other students to provide perspective and differing angles on the severity of the issues at hand, after all, generalising the issue doesn’t give it grounding.
The first point of interest I took was talking to my close mate within the university course, understanding the sacrifices hes made and his mental state after 5 years within the system. The ironic thing is that I haven’t talked to him about this topic yet.
Aaron Bills, a close friend of mine, elaborates on his experiences.
“I have definitely noticed a change in my mindset over the university period”[iv]
“I have found that Ive become extremely high functioning under stress and that’s both an advantage and a hindrance. The hindrance is that Ive become so accustomed to high stress situations that I don’t realise when it is affecting my mental capacity to work in a balanced way. i.e. I don’t get physical exercise for 2 week at a time without realising”[v]
“The place where I felt most anxious / stressed was when I found out we had to seek individual work experience places (16 weeks of it) without support from the university. Knowing I can’t graduate till that’s completed is super stressful and I was at a point where I was considering counselling for anxiety, I know all other work experience placements for different disciplines are coordinated through the Uni”
Discussing firsthand experiences of mental state during the course raises the point that you would think its addressed within our departments, but the truth is, its diagnosed but resources that aim to help students with these issues are not always promoted as much as they should be[vi]. Resources such as SONA (student organised network for architecture), and external organisations like beyond blue provide blueprints for counselling, but these aren’t provided to students proactively, it’s always reactive treatment[vii]. I think it all starts with changing the mindset of the education, as that’s where the culture is breeding. Our tutors, lecturers and professors have the responsibility to acknowledge that architectural study can be mentally fatiguing and this very acknowledgement in front of students would be a huge step forward in ridding the mindset of students feeling isolated.
Image Source: https://www.archdaily.com/498397/mental-health-in-architecture-school-can-the-culture-change
One quote that particularly resonates with myself is from Brian Kinnaird’s article on mental health in architecture schools – An Anxious Discipline –
“If schools are actually serious about the pedagogic merits of curating crises in their students, they should declare it. I don’t want to hear that “this is how practice is”, because this is not a labour environment, it’s a learning one. If you don’t think the difference is important, stop teaching”[viii]
University should be collaborative, and for the most part it is. But sometimes, too much of it is an us vs them (teacher vs student) battle and this distances transparency and discussion taking place about these issues. When I had issues, the last person I wanted to talk about it too was my tutor, largely because I felt as though the pressure put on by them was significantly contributing to the issue.
In saying this, maybe we can’t get away from the fact that competition, subjectivity and workaholic culture are always going to part the architectural discipline. Perhaps it’s not about ridding the profession of these attributes but managing the issues they might cause in proactive rather than reactive ways[ix]. I don’t have an answer to what these might be, as much as id like too, but hopefully this can become a grounding for further discussion.
In the past 6 weeks I have attempted to interrogate the culture of architecture school and the ways in which this culture can be potentially degrading on the mental health of its students. By looking at the topic from both personal and research-based point of views, I hope to have provided a platform for which discussion and action is provoked.
[i] physc., interviewed by James Rietveld, 2018, Mt Lawley, Perth
[iii] Kaji-O’Grady, Sandra. “Stress test: Addressing mental illness at architecture school” Architecture AU. September 8, 2016. https://architectureau.com/articles/stress-test-addressing-mental-illness-at-architecture-school/
[iv] Bills, A., interviewed by James Rietveld, 2018, UWA, Perth
[vii] Kinnaird, Brian. “An anxious discipline” Archipalour. September 23, 2016. http://archiparlour.org/an-anxious-discipline/
[ix] Mayer, John. “Mental wellness: should you be reactive or proactive” doctor on demand. November 16, 2014. https://blog.doctorondemand.com/mental-wellness-should-you-be-reactive-or-proactive-d597a64d7b66