Unsafe Spaces: Navigating Campus Spaces Comfortably

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist, Webmaster

Courtesy of tvtropes.org

Courtesy of tvtropes.org

You walk into a new room and look around. What do you feel? Do you even consider the atmosphere or characteristics of a new place? Probably not, unless it is remarkably interesting or atrocious.

What if you know there is something potentially dangerous in the room, but you must enter anyway?

Look for the nearest exit; find all the doors. Where is your escape route? What about the nearest bathroom or private space? How many people are there? How long must you stay? What if something happens--a panic attack, for example? If you don’t have to ask yourself similar questions, do not take that for granted. While you comfortably might be able to attend class, someone else in the room may feel that the walls are closing in at the same moment.

Space is political. Space is not harmless.

Space is how I’m referring to the physical environment surrounding groups and individuals. It is more than architecture or a hideous paint color, however. Have you ever walked into a room and immediately felt uncomfortable? It isn’t always the space itself, but it might be an association you have. Perhaps a room reminds you of your first grade classroom or smells like a dentist’s office. Your relationship with the space around you is personal, unique and anything but indifferent, whether you consciously recognize it or not. Come on. In a place as gorgeous as Scripps’ campus, you can’t say that environment has no effect on you.

Where there are any effects, there is the potential for something to be harmful. This means that while there may be such positive spaces as a room with good Feng Shui or a campus as tranquil and beautiful as Scripps, the room may also turn into an inescapable trap (for instance, if a person suffering from PTSD is in the room and the exit becomes blocked) and Scripps may become a nightmare (in the case of a triggering conversation in the space, the limited meals available in the dining halls for someone with or recovering from an eating disorder, lecture halls for someone with agoraphobia, long classes without breaks for someone with ADHD, the many potential triggers of party culture, mandatory class participation for someone with extreme social anxiety, etc.) A space includes surroundings—what’s in the room or area is as important as the place itself. And don’t forget that you and other people add to this dynamic. What is in the place includes what you bring to it.

This assertion that spaces can be beneficial or harmful is very important, because you cannot escape the obligations that lead you into other spaces without sacrificing your freedom and confidence to move across the overlap of different spaces which make up the human habitat. In other words, there’s no avoiding being in potentially harmful spaces without suffering from the severe limits that doing so would place upon you. Some would say that people who feel restricted by certain spaces should just stay away from them. “If you are so challenged, why even bother going to college?” They might ask. That’s ridiculous! You certainly wouldn’t tell women to avoid getting any jobs to prevent sexism in industry. It is up to individuals to know themselves, but as the general public, the least we can do is be understanding and try not to be harmful.

So, how can someone with concerns about spaces navigate them safely? Again, knowing yourself is the first step. Another piece of advice usually thrown around is to tell someone. This might not seem like it would make a difference, but having a friend or trusted person to support you or at least understand can make a world of difference. This person can help you get out if you need to, for example. Talking you down if you get really stressed in a situation is something else a friend can help you with. Reaching out allows you to make connections with people who might be experiencing similar setbacks.

Focus on the safe feeling you have with this person rather than associations that are making spaces problematic. Remember that sometimes associations are what you are reacting to— a place can remind you of something bad without being similar. Just because a plane crashed doesn’t mean the one you are on will; the connection is in your head, and the chance something bad will happen again is no different because something has happened before. A new place is an opportunity to start fresh and break mental connections.

Space is a very relevant topic considering housing is lurking ominously around the corner. The process of finding housing for the upcoming year is oft compared to the Hunger Games, even amongst those who do not have concerns about spaces. For most, even the thought of housing— the stress, the drama, the uncertainty, the lack of information, the dysfunctional portal, etc.— is enough to increase resting heart rate. Housing is also problematic for those who experience physical setbacks. This brings me to accommodations.

It is really interesting how, despite the mythical nature of unicorns, everyone knows what they are; meanwhile, housing accommodations certainly exist, though the information about them is as lost as the Library of Alexandria or the Fountain of Youth. The information is out there, though you have to first navigate the virtual maze called scrippscollege.edu until you stumble across it. (Maybe if you manage to excavate it, you’ll get an honorary archeology degree?) On a serious note, not being able to find information about this is problematic. Your room should be a place where you feel at home. It also concerns me that you can’t really get accommodations for certain circumstances that impact housing greatly. If you can’t get a doctor’s note for it, you can’t get accommodations for it. For example, most people with claustrophobia probably do not have a history of going to therapy to treat it, though living in a constricting space is beyond unbearable for some. If you are concerned about the interaction between housing and your own mental health, I encourage you to talk to Residential Life or the Dean of Students Office to discuss your options.  

Here are some tips I’ve personally used to make my space feel comfortable: If you have roommates, communicate with them. You don’t have to be best friends to live well with someone, but lack of communication can make your room feel like it doesn’t belong to you. The Res Life staff can help you with this if you have trouble. Some other ideas are bringing items from home, decorating your space and transforming the room’s dimensions by hanging décor on the wall or opening the windows. Lighting makes a huge difference as well— I know this from the contrast between my sinister, dank, humid, cave-like forced triple from last year and my tiny, blindingly-bright, inexplicably-freezing, whitewashed cell of a room this year.

If there’s one thing you get from this article or this column in general, I hope it is this idea: you deserve to feel safe and comfortable navigating spaces on campus. This, unfortunately, doesn’t always happen. Your relationship with space is no reflection on you— being uncomfortable doesn’t make you weak or sensitive. When in doubt about your mental health, don’t feel bad about taking breaks or making yourself feel comfortable. Remember that a space includes what you take into it; while you might not always be able to control factors like size and location, you have an amazing capacity to adapt and respond in a variety of  ways.

Sacred spaces can be created in any environment.
— Christy Turlington