Mental health issues: a new campaign to help architects

Mental health is a big issue for architects. Eleanor Jolliffe welcomes a new campaign launched by RIBA and the Architects Benevolent Society to help

Mental health started gaining prominence as an issue in architectural practice last year and I wrote two columns looking at the problem from the view of students and universities. I was encouraged by the seriousness by which the issue was taken, but ultimately unsurprised to note that in many instances the action taken was a well-meaning policy sporadically or patchily applied.

This is not a new problem to architecture and everyone seems to have their story - often told with a proud martyr like expression - of not sleeping, of ‘brutal’ crits or the recovery period post degree or deadline. Architecture can be a high pressure workplace and, like any creative endeavour, a little bit of self is invested in the work. It can be all too easy to allow the burgeoning masterpiece to take over just a little bit more of your life and head space than is entirely healthy or advisable.

Now the RIBA and the Architects Benevolent Society has launched a campaign that, according to former RIBA president and ABS current president Angela Brady, will “help students and the wider architects profession and practices to recognise the causes of stress, and other factors that can lead to mental health problems and catch them at an early stage and seek help”. The ABS are also partnering with Anxiety UK to provide mental health support to archhitects. Brady believes that mental health is only now coming to people’s attention and the ABS is there to help groups of professions and students who encounter difficulties or need advice and support.

Virginia Newman, in her capacity as RIBA Ambassador for Equality Diversity and Inclusion says that the RIBA want to further raise awareness of mental health in architecture with initiatives including a website which will signpost the indicators to be aware of and what to do if you, a colleague or an employee is suffering. The website will also offer pointers on emotional well-being. Furthermore the RIBA is collecting case studies to help illustrate how people within the industry are suffering and ‘what can and should’ be done to help.

Both Brady and Newman are clear about the scale of the problem citing the figures that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in a year.

Newman added that, “Architecture is a stressful profession being notoriously volatile, highly personal, too often poorly paid and with a long hours culture – all factors that can understandably exacerbate mental health issues. Architects can become isolated as they commonly work as sole practitioners or in small practices without HR support. There is a significant lack of understanding of mental health issues and a fear of prejudice and judgement.”

Mental health problems can be intimidating to face - especially in a profession that spends so much time considering the design and appearance of things

Brady believes that the profession need to change the way we work citing ‘long hours culture’, student peer reviews and the burden of student fees and debt as pressing problems and suggesting that we need to recognise signs of mental illness and undue stress at an early stage in order to combat the problem. She further believes that mental health training should be part of RIBA CPD. Brady was clear “being aware that mental health/illness is something that can affect all of us at any stage of our lives is something we should all talk about now. If we need to change the way we do things - then let’s look at good examples from other countries.”

Brady and Newman were emphatic on the point that mental health is not something that should be shunned or hidden. This is a problem that affects the whole profession and that people should not be afraid to seek help and guidance. They officially launched their campaign at Portland Place on May 8.

This is a personal issue for me, I have seen close family and friends struggle with mental health problems - it can be devastating and destructive. This is not an issue to pay lip service to or seek to brush under the carpet. I am very encouraged that the RIBA and ABS are taking these steps and I urge anyone reading to engage with what the RIBA and ABS are trying to do; and to play their part to prevent themselves, their friends and their colleagues from suffering.

Mental health problems can be intimidating to face - especially in a profession that spends so much time considering the design and appearance of things - it can look ugly and can make people more vulnerable than they want to be. It takes courage to tackle these issues, I sincerely hope our profession can collectively display that type of courage.

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