Experts Say Wellness Design Can Help Support Teen Mental Health
Covid has not been kind to teenagers, despite fewer of them contracting the virus than older adults. Their socialization outlets were shut down and more than a third (37%) responding to a survey said they had poor mental health during the pandemic. A stunning 44% reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless and 20% said they considered suicide, according to a CDC survey.
“The Covid-19 pandemic created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being,” commented CDC executive Debra Houry, MD in a March 2022 news release. “Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends.” What can and should that support look like from a wellness design perspective?
Special Needs Planning Matters
Karen Aronian is an educational designer in the northern New York metro area who creates learning spaces for teens and children. Those with special needs and learning differences have been even more challenged by the pandemic, she says. To support young people with mental health challenges, she recommends that parents make space design decisions with them slowly, and approach the project with a priority framework. That can include where the teen’s study area and restorative spots should be located, and be based on observation and experience, not just the parents’ preferences. “Beyond that, there are multiple considerations to address: light, sound, air quality, furnishings, therapeutics, and a go-to list of support services and learning resources.” Simple design is optimal, as overstimulating spaces can be problematic, she recommends.
Home Environment Matters
Board certified pediatrician Hansa Bhargava, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Medscape Education and author of Building Happier Kids, knows that home environment is a crucial factor in teenagers’ well-being. “It is very important for teens to have a ‘safe place’ in the home that is quiet.” That quiet spot is typically the teen’s bedroom. While suggesting that parents involve their kids in choosing their rooms’ décor, including posters and other personalized inspirational objects, Bhargava observes that “Colors invoking emotion is scientifically-supported. I think that a cooler (green/blue) color scheme in places of reset (such as a lounge area or a bedroom) is a good idea.”
Newton, Massachusetts-based interior designer Sarah Cole agrees. “A room’s colors and materials have a huge impact on how one feels. To reduce anxiety, balance strong color with calming neutrals and layer textures rather than too many colors.”
She also sees the value of personalized décor at this critical time of self exploration in young lives. “It is important that they feel supported and proud. Displaying art and objects that are important to teens, or that they created themselves, sends a clear message of validation,” the designer suggests.
Houston-based interior designer Mary Patton takes the same approach with her teen projects, bringing the young client into the discussion as much as possible, she says. “I want them to be as involved in the design process as their parents feel comfortable with.”
Pediatrician Bhargava speaks to the value of biophilia: “The effects of nature are multifold: Studies have found that exposure to nature not only reduces stress but can help with sleep and positive emotions. Incorporating nature views and plants is a great idea in any space!” That can come from houseplants or even artwork depicting natural settings.
Natural light is also extremely helpful, Cole notes. “In the bedroom, using blackout curtains at night and opening them during the day to flood the room with natural light helps teens maintain good circadian rhythms. Keep televisions out of the bedroom and skip the bedside phone charging station.” (Easier said than done for most teens – but manageable with current technologies.)
Patton feels the same: “I am not a mental health professional,” the designer says, “however, I wish iPads could be thrown out, and kids would get creative with art, play outside, and have lots of pets to care for. But we live in a world that puts pressure on us to expose kids to technology, and unfortunately, it’s not going away anytime soon.”
In some respects, technology can be helpful. Human centric lighting, also called circadian lighting, is a growing trend in the smart home technology space. HCL mimics the natural path of the sun from bright and cold in the morning to soft and warm in the evening. This LED-based technology can be beneficial to teens who may spend the bulk of their time indoors. Lighting manufacturer Lumilum president Michael Meisner explains: “Blue light during the day can make you feel more alert and improve focus, reaction time, and productivity. It also suppresses melatonin production, making you less sleepy; this can be negative if you don’t limit your exposure to blue light in the evenings before bed. Using lights with a red or orange color temperature in the evening will help you relax and sleep better as it stimulates melatonin production.” All of this can be programmed for your teen (and yourself). If a smart home technology system is not in the picture, widely available circadian bulbs can do the job too.
“Did your parents monitor your Internet use when you were my age?” my then-teen stepdaughter once asked when her Dad and I were establishing Myspace rules decades ago. ‘We didn’t have the Internet when I was your age,’ I responded with amusement. Boomer and Gen X teen bedroom technology usually included a radio, stereo or TV. Some younger Gen Xers might have had a personal computer later on. Typical teens shared their family’s landline. That is definitely not the case today.
“Most teen bedrooms we work on are heavily focused on streaming capability,” says Joe Acree, a smart home technology integrator in Kansas City. His firm sets up systems that let teens access the home’s network from any room or device. “All that technology might seem like overkill to some, but it helped when schooling went online for more than a year,” Acree points out. As home spaces shift from classrooms to study areas and social zones, this flexibility is still welcome. The fact that they can easily shift back into learning centers if needed is also helpful.
Smart home technology can control other areas of a teen’s home environment, including climate and lighting, Acree notes. This can be especially useful on school mornings. “We’ve programed automations to slowly begin to brighten the lights, open the shades, and steadily turn up the volume on music the kids may enjoy waking to. It’s a much different experience for them than the abrupt knock on the door or the shout up the stairs to start getting ready.”
One of the biggest tech trends Acree’s adult clients request is parental control. And their teens are increasingly sophisticated in bypassing them, he muses. “Parents are looking for ways to govern the times their kids have access to the Internet, as well as controlling what they are viewing.” Working with a company that understands residential networks helps, he advises. “With a full home automation system, it is much more difficult for kids to work around.”
Setting up these systems involves creating user profiles for each family member with varying levels of control, schedule and access. How much time the teen can spend surfing or gaming is pre-determined and automated by parents. They don’t have to actively think about it, Acree says. “Another part of parental controls is the ability to monitor for cyberbullying,” the integrator adds. “Parents are alerted if there are issues arising through text, social media, and more,” he explains. He is seeing a strong trend of parents using technology to safeguard against teens spending excessive time on their devices, while also safeguarding against less than desirable internet interactions. Their goal is to encourage them to enjoy time outside and with the family.
Technology for Special Needs
“Designing spaces for teens and kids with special needs hits really close to home for me,” declares Acree. “My 15-year-old son has autism and I am constantly looking at how technology can make life easier for him to communicate, get through the house, and be safe. One of the biggest game changers across all of our projects for anyone with special needs is enabling two-way communication throughout the house, whether that be an intercom or camera and speaker system.” That eases dialogue between household members and access to the home for helpers and visitors. An easy-to-use interface with the home technology system can facilitate this, he notes.
“We just finished a project for a family with a daughter [who] can’t speak and primarily communicates through sign language. Bringing two-way communication into their home has given these parents huge peace of mind,” he shares. “They can bring up the cameras in their house on any TV or mobile device to check on and communicate with her.”
Security systems with app-based notifications, lighting and shading controls are also popular features. These can be especially helpful for clients that may not be as ambulatory or have other special needs to see who’s at a door, let them in, open and close window coverings, and operate the TV or thermostat, the integrator says.
“The objective is to create feel-good spaces that inspire joy, mindfulness, and productivity,” observes learning designer Aronian. “Nothing is static; we are continually flexing as teens grow and change. Home environments impact your teens’ wellness and make a notable difference in their health and future success,” she concludes.