Byron Kinnaird on the need for our discipline to take responsibility for the mental health of students and the wider profession.

La Tourettes syndrome. Photograph Byron Kinnaird.

La Tourette syndrome. Photograph Byron Kinnaird.

The mental health of architecture students is suffering, and it may be that our anxious discipline of teachers, researchers and practitioners is enabling the viciously effective enculturation of high-functioning mad architects. Unfairly, the responsibility for writing, reporting and managing mental distress in the profession is falling on women. The architecture profession, especially its men, desperately needs to ask for the same help I eventually had to.

The Architect’s Journal recently published the results of their students’ survey, which asked for the first time about the mental wellbeing of British architecture students. The results were supposed to be shocking – a quarter of respondents reported they had already sought out mental health services, and another quarter thought they would need to in the future.[ref]Richard Waite and Ella Braidwood “Mental health problems exposed by AJ Student Survey 2016”, 28 July 2016.[/ref]

First of all, this shouldn’t be shocking. A quarter of all young Australians will experience a mental health condition.[ref]Beyond Blue, Anxiety and depression: An information booklet (2014).[/ref] And it isn’t news. Toronto University made headlines four years ago with the same results after surveying their students. The Canadian respondents described the painfully familiar problems of their British peers, with the majority of distress attributed to authority figures, including oppressive workloads, a lack of organisation in the faculty, coinciding deadlines, and negative interactions with faculty. On top of this, students were skipping sleep, meals, friends and exercise.

I can’t see that Australian students are feeling any better. Nearly a quarter of all architects work 49 hours or more per week and graduates are worried about work-life balance, feeling undervalued, poor pay, and poor working conditions.[ref]Parlour. “Appendix C: Architects in Australia: A snapshot from the 2011 Census”; Australian Research Council linkage project (2011–2014), September 2013; Australian Institute of Architects, 2013 Graduate Survey.[/ref]

It’s a dangerous time for future architects to be bombarded with this stress. University students are a high-risk population. Coping with new financial stresses and accommodation issues, their rates of elevated distress are double that of the general population.[ref]Australian Medical Student Association, University Student Mental Health: The Australian Context, 2013.[/ref] But if you’re still coping, welcome to architecture, where you can look forward to at least five years of sleep deprivation (29% of British architecture students reported ‘regularly’ doing all-nighters), expensive course-related costs, an aggressive make-or-break culture, discrimination against minorities and women, public humiliation, fraternal hazing and the ruinous belief that if you really care, you should be suffering.[ref]Ulysses Valiente “Mental Health Awareness for the Architecture Student,” Life of An Architect, 2012.[/ref]

The problem is that it works.

Work harder, play the game, play your tutor, stay up later, suffer some more, and you’re likely to be rewarded with a better grade. This type of positive reinforcement is the self-destructive behaviour that is crippling architecture students. Not surprisingly, the profession is limping along with the same bad habits, and although we’re doing a better job than ever of diagnosing our anxious discipline, we’re doing a really shitty job of taking care of it.

I only realized the extent of my mental distress a couple of years ago, partway through my PhD. In the previous year, I had hardly made any progress at all. And I don’t mean I was going in circles, or had hit a couple of dead ends, I mean I did hardly anything. Successfully working with incomplete, contradictory, or overwhelming information toward an unclear outcome is often celebrated as an architect’s expertise. But when these conditions are concentrated and relentlessly reproduced at architecture school, it’s not surprising that I developed avoidance as a coping mechanism. The spiraling complexity, exhausting duration and ambiguous objective of my PhD only reinforced these patterns. My tenuous equilibrium was just as easily upset by financial stress, job insecurity, and status anxiety – all frequent and persistent stresses in my life at the time. It’s hard to explain how this deception went on for so long. Despite your best insight, watching yourself sabotage your own progress is a horribly disempowering thing. It’s a cruel and debilitating response of a desperate body and mind that isn’t coping.

My depression and anxiety took a long time to figure out. On top of my elaborate avoidance, I was uncharacteristically flat most of the time, my body would easily pick up aches and strains, I retreated socially, drank more, was hopelessly indecisive (simple things like choosing where to get a coffee on campus could trigger a debilitating afternoon of anxious frustration) and, worst of all, I stopped enjoying the things I really love: drawing and writing.

My story isn’t special. A 2015 study of USA graduate students indicated 47% suffered from depression at some point, and Australian academics are increasingly vulnerable to mental distress.[ref]Scott Jaschik, “The Other Mental Health Crisis Inside Higher Ed, 2015; Anthony J Winefield, Carolyn Boyd, Judith L Saebel, “Job Stress in University Staff: An Australian Research Study,” Australian Academic Press, 2008.[/ref] In her insightful article, Jennifer Whelan recently shared her experience of depression and anxiety as a PhD student, where feeling “unsupported, isolated, and adrift in uncertainty” was exacerbated by perennial issues of job insecurity and imposter syndrome.[ref]Jennifer Whelan “There’s an Awful Cost to Getting a PhD that No One Talks AboutQuartz (2015).[/ref] Whelan incisively points out that a post-graduate’s reliance on self-discipline is precisely what generates and then justifies such negative self-thoughts.

If there was as turning point in my story, it was because I was lucky enough to have someone close to me challenge me about what was going on. Not everyone is this lucky, and not everyone will get noticed. I was incredibly good at avoiding help, like most Australian students facing mental distress.[ref]More than 80 per cent of males and nearly 70 per cent of females with these conditions aged 16 to 24 years do not use any services or get the professional help they need. T. Slade et al. The Mental Health of Australians 2: Report on the 2007 national survey of mental health and wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing (2009).[/ref] I was also very defensive about it. Although women have higher rates of mental health incidence, men are less likely to talk about it. My fear of being diagnosed as ‘unwell’ is hard to express, but I can express how incredible it felt after reading the most basic information about anxiety and depression and seeing all of my shitty feelings and behaviours written down right there. Frighteningly, I nearly ticked the whole damned list of symptoms. Perhaps it’s my personality that loves discovering new knowledge, but this was a revelation: somebody else could describe what was going on with me, and they had plenty of ways to help.

At an individual level, there are so many resources out there, and I devoured them. I found online resources incredibly helpful for simply understanding a variety of risks, symptoms, thoughts and actions. These resources meant I could work through my distress discretely and in my own space and time. From there I found a number of basic online checklists, such a Beyond Blue, that could give generalised feedback about my mental well-being. Some of these are connected to further interactive online resources such as MindSpot, which were also very appealing because working through simple exercises on paper felt tangible and achievable.

I also sought out a referral from my GP and met with a psychologist for a few sessions when things were really bad. This was incredibly helpful in all sorts of ways, and I truly enjoyed our conversations. I would highly recommend it to anyone – and don’t wait to be a debilitated wreck like I was either. Most universities will provide counseling services for free, or a GP referral will substantially reduce the cost of visiting a psychologist for up to ten sessions through Medicare. Online services are also increasingly popular and effective. SANE Australia’s Forums provide an anonymous, supportive and diverse 24-hour space for discussion and interaction, Mindspot offer flexible online treatment courses, and NewAccess is a free coaching program currently available in Canberra, South Australia and the north coast of New South Wales provided by Beyond Blue.

Identifying these issues is not easy. University students are notoriously high-functioning under stress, and can typically cope for extended periods (even years) without confronting behaviours and feelings that might be symptoms of mental distress. I have recognised some of these behaviours way back in my undergraduate degree, ten years ago. A part of me is angry to look back at that and wish I had the skills to call myself out sooner, or to have more people around me who weren’t utterly complicit. Did I break something permanently? A part of me is sad and worn out, this is something I have to work at almost every day now. This should not be left to any one to deal with on their own. This is a systemic issue.

Architecture schools have a lot to confront. 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.

Universities in general are getting better at providing mental health services, and more students are using them (such as counselling services, extensions and Special Consideration) to mitigate the pressures of architecture school on their mental health, which is clearly a good thing. If architecture students are over-represented in counselling services and academic assistance related to mental distress, architecture schools are more likely to understand the extent of the issue, or at least be held accountable by university leadership, who themselves can be held accountable by mental health advocates. At a faculty level, teaching staff need to engage in meaningful and open discussions about mental health with their students, which means schools need to engage in these discussions with their predominantly casual workforces. They are the most likely to engage with students face-to-face, and least likely to see the effects of their teaching when they are not there. In their absence, local student associations and the Student Organised Network for Architecture (SONA) need to confront these issues as well. SONA has the opportunity to gather and report national data on the mental wellbeing of those they represent and care for.

There are incredible resources available for universities and architectural practices, and they should use them. Heads Up, developed by Beyond Blue, provides resources and tools for creating mentally healthy workplaces (and explains the business sense for doing it). SANE Australia’s Mindful Employer program goes a step further and offers on-site workshops and eLearning resources to develop best practice tools and training for healthier workplaces. Every workplace should register for the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and consider the idea of Reflection Leave, where a week of leave is granted per year for structured and focused reflection (whether that means meditating, hiking, or drawing to you).

It’s such a relief that students, academics and practicing architects are more than ever willing to share their stories of mental distress. Now that we are calling ourselves out, we are much more likely to take some responsibility for getting help as a discipline, because we don’t seem to be coping on our own.

Some days are still bad for me, but I reckon I’m getting better at it: I’ve built the capacity and the environment to manage my mental health; I moved to the mountains so I could climb them and breath the air at a thousand meters up; I enjoy my work; I’m happy to talk about my experience to anyone; and I’m still working on my PhD, which won’t save the world – or me – but it’ll be all right.


Note: While this piece was being written two other pieces have been published on the topic: “Stress Test: Addressing mental illness at architecture school” by Sandra Kaji-O’Grady on ArchitectureAU and “Mental Health and Wellbeing for Architecture Students” by Sophie Hamer on Portico. The NSW Architects Registration Board has also initiated research and resources looking at managing mental health.

Byron Kinnaird is a teacher, writer and artist based in the Blue Mountains. He grew up in Aotearoa New Zealand and studied architecture at Victoria University of Wellington. He is currently working on a PhD at the University of Melbourne investigating architectural education in Australia, and he is one of the directors of the Freerange Press.