Mental Health and Architecture: We Need a Safe Place

Mental Health and Architecture

Mental Health and Architecture

A deluge of recent articles in Architect magazine (“The Burnout Problem in Architecture”), Archinect (“Debunking Architecture’s Mythological Work Culture”), Crain’s Chicago Business (“Crisis Point”), and others have elevated conversations about mental health in architecture and, more broadly, in our workplaces. That’s a good start but we can and should dig deeper — individually, in our offices and more broadly within the profession.

There are models for how this could look. Take, for example, the Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP).
You may have noticed that one of the authors of this article is an attorney. Gregg is grateful to belong to a profession (all lawyer jokes temporarily aside) that has, for decades, actively worked to help lawyers, judges and law students (and their families) in crisis, through a fully functioning and robust program known as the Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP). LAP helps those who are “concerned about alcohol abuse, drug dependency or stress related issues like anxiety, burnout, depression and many others. [Its] services include individual and group therapy, assessments, education, peer support and intervention.”

Gregg has personal experience with that support structure, and shares how important the professional
network was for him and his family:

“More than 20 years ago, I was in desperate straits. And LAP was there to guide me toward an off-ramp
from a self-destructive cycle involving alcoholism that, quite certainly, would have ruined my career and
family life. Today, through that support, which helped me take essential recovery measures, I consider
myself the luckiest person around, not simply because of the incredible good fortune I have experienced
career-wise, but because my family and social relations are stronger and healthier than ever.”

“The difficult times of the past two years have been challenging for all of us, especially those of us who struggle with mental health, addiction, and substance abuse. It made us realize that architecture doesn’t have a corresponding program to LAP.”

Gregg Garmisa, Esq.

This is a shame, because both professions share many of the same traits: demanding clients, high stakes, driven personalities, self-imposed and often unattainable goals, etc.

As the industry continues to transform and grapple with inequities, workforce diversity, labor challenges and climate change, among other current issues, we challenge our colleagues to join in a collective and inclusive commitment to expand mental health support throughout our profession.

Individual architects and firms are currently navigating their respective ways forward and it seems reasonable to conclude that, in many respects, work life as we knew it in the pre-pandemic time is going to have to adjust. What that will look like in each case is beyond the scope of this short treatment. What we propose here is, instead, to offer a few suggestions that might pave the way for a healthier path into the future for the profession, from both a micro- and macro-level.

We as humans and members or allies of the architecture profession, and the profession more broadly, must prioritize the importance of mental health and destigmatize the ways in which we think, talk and act when the subject is mental health and the myriad ways in which life crises manifest themselves. We all know that it takes a village, and in these uncertain times, as we each strive for professional excellence, let’s also commit to habits of self-care and, equally important, look out for our colleagues, our peers, our classmates and our families, whether chosen, genetic or otherwise.

The time to act is now.

The collective action of our profession can have a strong impact. We may not yet have our own version of LAP, but we can certainly do more collectively through AIA and other formal and informal channels to support one another. And, fortunately, there are many more outlets available to support those in crisis than ever before, whether it’s through a company-sponsored EAP (employee assistance plan), or more robust mental health insurance benefits, a growing societal recognition that mental and emotional ordeals are “real,” or 12-step-type programs.

Let’s contemplate the mechanisms that might affect positive change. In the same way that we encourage mentorship to nurture leaders, let’s consider how we can talk about the challenges, pressures and constraints that weigh on us in our practices. It is time to utilize the lever of mental health to enhance the culture of architectural practice.

We propose investigating the creation of a model akin to the LAP for architects, architecture students and colleagues in the AEC industry. We propose serious conversations at every level of our profession that work to the universal adoption of the AIA’s Guide for Equitable Practice. For sure the practicalities might benefit from our expertise in design-thinking to iron out the details. For sure any actions will outweigh continued inaction.

We create safe and healthy places for our clients to live their best lives. Let’s redouble our efforts to build those places for ourselves too. Peter Exley, FAIA served as the 2021 president of AIA. Gregg Garmisa, Esq., is principal and general counsel at Studio Gang in Chicago. Korey White, AIA, was elected as AIA’s 2022 Strategic Council moderator.

The authors plan to meet in the coming months to formulate a draft action plan for mental health. AIA Chicago will convene a series of member-led conversations and programs. We welcome collaborators. If you’re interested in joining this group, email for more information.


Peter Exley, FAIA, RIBA

Greg Garmisa, Esq.

Korey White, AIA

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