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Environment and Mental Health

Do we all just need a change of scenery?

Can a change of scenery and living conditions help those who suffer from mental illness to begin to sort out their lives anew? 

As Kyle Walker reports, that was the belief of certain early 20th-century Austrian psychiatrists and architects (“Modernism, Heal Thyself,” Public Books, 21 September 2017). He explains, “Imagining themselves as heirs to the 18th-century reformers who first released the mentally ill from their chains at Bedlam or the Salpêtrière, liberal psychiatrists promoted the villa asylum, a new treatment model rooted in modern ideas that promoted balancing autonomy and control.”

The marrying of medicine and architecture offers an interesting look at how culture was employed in an attempt to heal the souls of the insane. Are we affected by our environment? This experiment certainly believed that to be the case, and social planners and activists have insisted for a generation now that better living conditions are essential if people are to lift themselves out of poverty and find a meaningful life.

But the failure of the Pruit-Igoe experiment in St. Louis, and similar failures in other cities, suggests that culture is not sufficiently powerful to redress all the ills that reside in the human soul, and that broken souls will soon enough result in a broken culture. It takes a power greater than mere culture to heal the soul of broken and sinful men.

There is a caution here against vesting too much importance in architecture, as, for example, in church buildings. While an uplifting and beautiful environment can contribute to spiritual growth, it has no power to achieve that end in itself, as witness the many empty cathedrals and impressive liberal churches around the world.

Souls are healed and lifted from within, by the work of the Spirit, working with the Word. We should work for edifying and uplifting environments, and homes and churches that encourage order and beauty; however, we must be realistic about our expectations concerning what such environments can achieve.

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