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  • Abbey Ness, AICP

Military Mental Health + Urban Design

Updated: Sep 9

Warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts or behavior (service is free and confidential).


It was the first day of high school, and I was sitting in my first class of the day – freshman English. I did not know anyone else in the class and I had a mediocre background in English grammar to boot. In addition to typical teenage anxieties associated with the first day of high school, I was pretty nervous about this class in particular.


Then I failed the teacher’s first-day-of-school grammar diagnostic test, firmly solidifying my fears.


Fortunately, I happened to be sitting behind a mild-mannered but witty kid with a crooked smile who was brilliant at English grammar. Throughout the rest of the semester, he patiently helped me work my way through gerunds, participles, and the various forms of commands until I was making an “A” in the class. We shared a few other classes throughout the next four years, as well as passions for alternative rock and cosplaying in togas during Latin Club meetings (in other words, we were huge nerds).


After high school, we drifted apart a bit. I went to college, and he worked a few jobs back home until he decided to enlist in the Navy a few years later.


He was 27 when he killed himself.


As is the case with many people who experience mental health issues, there were no signs of anything amiss in his life – he had just graduated first in his class during a Navy training course a few months prior. He was successful in his new career and beloved by his family and friends.

This story is just one of many stories about bright men and women with their whole lives ahead of them who struggle with mental health disorders. Despite increased awareness and the availability of mental health services over the past few years, the rate of suicides among active-duty service members has continued to increase. The causes are numerous – there are many factors that contribute to poor mental health in the military, ranging from poor sleep to combat-related trauma – and there is a persistent stigma among service members about seeing counselors because of fear of career-related consequences or retaliation.


A wide range of initiatives is needed in order to ensure that service members are capable of identifying symptoms of declining mental health in themselves and others, comfortable with seeking a range of support mechanisms, and empowered to manage any mental health episodes. While counseling and medication are still considered the most effective strategies for managing mental health disorders, recent research indicates that urban designers and architects can also play a role in improving mental health by designing spaces to encourage social interactions, exposure to nature, recreation, and physical fitness, among other therapeutic lifestyle changes. This blog post is the first in a series that will focus on these connections, highlight related research findings, and apply them to the work of federal planners, urban designers, and architects.


Truthfully, I have no idea how much my friend’s military experience contributed to his mental state. But ultimately, that really does not matter to me – I know that his story is just a “drop in the well” of what thousands of other service members, veterans, and their families have experienced, and my goal is to use the skills I have to help prevent it from happening again. Please join me for future blog posts as we examine the unique role that urban planners can play to convey a sense of belonging, hope, and the dignity of every human life in the design and planning of military bases.



The Green Road next to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Photo from Nature Sacred (naturesacred.org)

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