Mental Health in Architecture: A Blog by Amy

A personal experience blog by Amy Francis-Smith in which she shares her experience of mental health whilst completing her masters degree and explains how she managers her mental health within her role in Architecture. Guest blog by Amy Francis-Smith.

I’ve been working/studying in Architecture on and off for the past 10 years and it’s an industry notorious for its long hours, high stress, late nights in the studio. Unfortunately it is also one of the lowest paid professions.

The educational system isn’t much better, fostering a relentlessly competitive environment where coursework is expected to be both qualitative and quantitative. Regular ‘crits’ where students must present their work in front of tutors, visiting architects and fellow students expecting to be grilled on their decisions for up to 45 minutes.

It is not unheard of for students to be found semi living in university studios, surviving off caffeine and junk food, working through the night with the occasional nap on an airbed under the desk. The old-school culture of architecture schools was thought to ‘form students into committed architects’, almost as if a sadistic rite of passage to go through the hell of deadlines, models breaking, spilling coffee on drawings and last-minute changes from blasé to downright unsympathetic tutors.

Thankfully schools have started to make efforts to rectify these gruelling habits, with the mental health and well-being of their students now coming to the forefront of pastoral care beyond just academic support.

However, the wider industry still has some way to go before workplace stress and the all too common burnout is resolved. Architecture, much like the rest of the construction industry, has been dominated heavily by masculine stereotypes where personal matters are kept personal and the ‘weaknesses’ of an individual are kept hidden. As the wider public opens up to conversations around mental health, business owners have started to see the benefits of showing kindness and compassion to their employees.

On a personal level, I struggled quite intensely during my undergrad and Masters degrees. As someone with a Type A driven personality and perfectionist tendencies, there was always one extra drawing to be done, one more hour of sleep I could survive without and another social event I would cancel. The weeks of working until 2am+ largely at home alone in my bedroom unsurprisingly drove me towards insanity, which only hampered my decision making and quality of my work.

The relentless pushing of my body resulted not only in panic attacks, insomnia, teeth-grinding anxiety and depression but ultimately to a complete collapse of my physical and mental health.

Part way through my Masters at the University of Westminster in 2015, my life was put on hold due to a rare, life-threatening illness (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome) in which the individual is subjected to multiple severe anaphylaxis reactions to nearly all aspects of life. A genetic predisposition that was largely exacerbated through prolonged stress and lack of sleep. Consequently, I was forced to defer my second year, resign from my job, leave my flat and return to my family home where I was frequently hospitalised for weeks on end.

During this time, I was also diagnosed with Crohn’s and EDS (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome), a devastating blow as a young woman who was no longer able to function in society anymore. After many years recuperating, searching for relief and learning to cope with my new normal, I gradually found the strength to re-enter education and employment.

Having experienced first-hand the fragility of health and the consequences of ignoring one’s body, it was essential for me to find an employer who did not jeopardise my balance of work and rest or expect ridiculous (unpaid) overtime.

I now use a whole variety of techniques to keep me on track; I try to keep to a strict morning routine, waking up at the same time and exercising every workday morning, with my SAD light on in the winter months and ending my shower with a cold blast to give me some energy. Giving myself a few minutes of breathwork at the end of my commute to calm me down and focus for the day of work ahead. I go for a brisk walk every lunch, even in the rain, to get some fresh air and away from the glare of the screens. I’ve also covered much of my desk with plants, stretch, making time to laugh with my colleagues and appreciate the little things to keep me grounded.

In the evenings I talk through any troubles or concerns of the day with my partner, give myself permission to relax in front of the TV, read a book or an Epsom salts bath, keep my gratitude journal and meditate before a 7/8 hour sleep. I also find intermittent fasting keeps me alert and maintaining a high nutrient dense anti-inflammatory diet helps me avoid feeling sluggish and low.

It isn’t easy to talk about your troubles at work, especially in a smaller practice where there is often no in-house HR and your boss is still relying on you to get on with a deadline. I find it easier to speak to a trusted colleague but tend to aim for someone in a higher position so that they could potentially advocate to management on my behalf.

As part of the Birmingham Architectural Association, I recently helped organise an event for World Mental Health Day 2019, where we invited Katie Buckingham, the Altruist founder, to deliver a workshop on coping strategies in the workplace. Her information and resources were well received and many of the attendees were very grateful for the new-found confidence to act as mental health champions in their workplace.

Alongside Katie, we asked Fraser Godfrey of Glenn Howells Architects to discuss his involvement with the newly published Architects Mental Wellbeing Toolkit. A pamphlet that is available to download for free online and gives practical suggestions specifically for the architecture industry. Off the back of this, the BAA sent a physical copy to the Director of every studio in Birmingham, so they are aware of their wider responsibilities to their staff and had actionable ideas to take from it.

We also invited the Architects Benevolent Society, a national charitable organisation with whom I have recently become an Ambassador. They talked about the support, guidance and financial aid they offer, not only for Architects but to Architecture Students, Architectural Assistants, Technicians, Technologists, Landscape Architects and their families in times of need. They can provide support via a helpline and through email, well-being assessments, a year’s membership to Anxiety UK and one to one CBT, hypnotherapy, acupuncture or counselling

Mental health is still a touchy subject, most are happy to talk about it hypothetically but it’s much harder to openly address it on a personal level. That’s why the Architects Mental Wellbeing Toolkit has been so well received, as it can be used to help both employer and employee know what practical solutions can be implemented to resolve an issue.

Amy Francis-Smith

RIBA Part II

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Link to research paper:

‘Psychogeography of the Home – A Disabled Perspective: A Contextualised Analysis of the UK Accessible Housing Market’

https://issuu.com/amyfrancis-smith/docs/psychogeography_of_the_home_-_amy_f

Amy Francis-Smith is a RIBA Part II Architectural Designer, Part 3 candidate and passionate advocate for inclusive design, with her research and work focused on providing decent accommodation for the disabled. Named as one of Birmingham Live’s 30 under 30 2019, she is the Vice-President of the Birmingham Architectural Association and an Ambassador for the Architects Benevolent Society. Campaigning for legislative change, she gives talks to educate students and professionals of their social responsibility, has written several published articles, sits on Habinteg's advisory board and helped run a pilot course for visually impaired students at The Bartlett.

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