By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


In May of this year, more than 3,500 young people under 18 were referred to mental health crisis teams. This figure is three times higher than in May 2019.  

A 2020 study from the NHS found that 1 in 6 young people in England experienced a mental health problem that year compared to 1 in 9 in 2017.

In 2017-2018, the Office for National Statistics found that around a third of women aged 16-24 reported some level of depression or anxiety, a 26% increase on the year before.

The list of statistics like these is seemingly endless, and there could be a myriad of reasons why reported mental health problems in young people have increased in recent years.

We of course cannot ignore the COVID-19 pandemic; research has found that lockdowns had a detrimental effect on young people’s mental health. Eco-anxiety is understandably increasing. It also could be that, pandemics and climate crises aside, mental health problems have perpetually existed but, due to the stigma associated, people haven’t always felt able to seek help.

Regardless of why we may be seeing these figures, young people’s mental health is undeniably a subject that needs attention, and who better to bring innovative ideas on how to support young people to the table than young people themselves?

To mark World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we spoke to 15 year-old student, Nikola, and her teacher, Cath Parkins, about Nikola’s Silver CREST Award project, Adolescent Mental Health Room Design. She told us what inspired her, the benefits she experienced through working on her project, and how she brought the worlds of computer aided design and mental health together.

Nikola’s project  

CREST is the British Science Association’s flagship education scheme that encourages young people to think and behave like scientists and engineers through working on open-ended, investigative projects.

Nikola’s CREST project involved using SketchUp, a 3D modelling computer design programme, to create her vision of a Mental Health Room – a common room for 11-16 years olds in hospital that would use certain colours, textures, objects and views from the window to create a calming space.

Nikola was informed by her own experience of spending time in hospital receiving treatment for mental health conditions; she knows what’s missing from the hospital environment, and the sorts of things teenagers might benefit from. An artist working in the hospital designing a wall for a mental health room inspired Nikola to put her own ideas to paper, and submit them for a CREST Award. Image left: Nikola with her project

Bringing computer skills and mental health innovation together

One of the things that makes Nikola’s CREST project so interesting and unique is how it brings diverse strands of STEM together; mental health, creative design and computer programming.                                                                                                                                 

Designing her mental health room gave Nikola the chance to develop her skills on SketchUp, a computer design programme used by architects, and use it in conjunction with her interest in improving mental health facilities. Nikola said:

I didn’t even know [SketchUp] was a thing before I did it. You can create rooms and design them on there. You can go to the warehouse where you can put furniture in...I had to be creative.

Her teacher Cath added:

She used a lot of skills that she’d never even thought of. It’s quite mathematical as well, doing the angles and getting everything into the right perspective as well. She was really driven and committed to it.

What a difference a colour makes

When taking a scientific approach to designing a space for a specific audience the first step is research, what do people want? So, this is what Nikola did – she put together a survey for other young people in hospital asking about the colours and textures they found calming.

“A lot of people have different preferences, but people usually pick the colour blue or white,” she told us.

They avoided the colours that were extremely bright and saturated so I found out that lighter colours are more calming to most people…I’m guessing the more saturated colours were more stimulating and made people too excited and the lighter colours like blue and yellow make them calmer.

There is research into colour psychology – how different colours can affect our mood and evoke various emotions – that supports Nikola’s findings. Research shows that people often associate white and blue with relief and yellow with joy.

                          Image above: one of Nikola's designs

Nikola also wanted to include lots of greens in her design.

It made me think of nature, there are a lot of people in hospital who are here for a long time and when you look out the window all you can see is a parking lot, it would be nice to see some nature.

Lots of evidence shows that time spent in nature, or even just seeing views of nature has a significant positive impact on our wellbeing – Nikola made an astute observation that for young people (or indeed anyone) in hospital being treated for mental health problems, a view of a parking lot is not ideal.

Of course, it’s not always avoidable, we must park our cars, but bringing nature into young people’s surroundings as much as possible should be a goal.

Increasing confidence

Approaching people to ask them to complete a survey can be daunting, and perhaps no more so than when you’re a teenager asking other teenagers to answer questions about mental health. Nikola told us:

I’ve got such anxiety so it was really nerve-wracking actually going around asking them but in the end I actually managed to do it, and I found out a lot of new things and preferences.

Her teacher Cath said:

She got really good feedback from the people she spoke to, it brought Nikola out of her shell, she realised she’s actually a good communicator and people do warm to her easily and were very happy to give her all the information she wanted.

Completing a CREST Award is not only about the particular topic a student has chosen to explore, it’s also about developing skills that can be applied across the board. Confidence and good communication are arguably at the top of the list of skills young people benefit massively from working on.  

Nikola’s future

Nikola is 15 years old, and her future looks bright. She told us she enjoyed the opportunity this CREST project gave her to experiment with design – it may be something she’d like to pursue later on.

I liked this project so I think maybe [as a career] architecture could be nice, room design, something along those lines. I’m more of a creative person, so I’m staying around that area.

Turning to Nikola, Cath summed up the experience:

I think the CREST Award gave you the opportunity to see how creative, focused and talented you can be, because you’d never been given a challenge like that, to actually focus your energy and attention on and produce something of your own. I personally think that it showed you what you’re capable of and I think you should be really proud of yourself because you’ve worked so hard.


 Other blogs you might be interested in:

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Education | Why we need more girls to study computing

Education | Underrepresentation and the next generation - a CREST Awards case study

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