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In addition to the everyday stressors of college, the pandemic has significantly worsened the mental health of college students. COVID-19 has intensified student feelings of anxiety, depression and hopelessness. The percentage of students reporting anxiety, for instance, has grown from less than 20 percent in 2019 to close to 45 percent this past year. Some states, like West Virginia, are taking steps to help colleges and universities combat these trends by awarding large grants to expand mental health services for students.

But while increasing on-campus and telehealth counselor accessibility, hosting workshops to reduce loneliness and stress, adding 24-7 crisis hotlines, and lifting limits for no-cost therapy sessions offered to students can help, colleges have yet to realize they may already have a hub of wellness on-site. Campus makerspaces hold untapped potential for serving students and their mental health needs.

“Today, almost every major university or college has some sort of makerspace, because they see it as an asset to their students and a necessity to round out their education,” Paul Gentile, a trustee of Fair Use Building and Research Labs, a nonprofit makerspace in New Jersey, has observed. Yet besides their educational benefits, campus makerspaces can provide numerous psychological benefits for students, as well. Makerspaces allow students to engage in therapeutic exercises that help boost their mood. In a makerspace, struggling students can find community, opportunities to contribute, outlets to heal through making and multiple ways to employ their creativity—and achieve satisfying results for those efforts.

The Space

Makerspaces are for everyone. Technically, such spaces have been designed as environments that “can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability,” according to the Center for Excellence in Universal Design.

However, most college campuses have also built warmth into their makerspaces by crafting them as welcoming, comfortable environments housed in places like the university’s library. Many makerspaces have arts and craft supplies, sewing machines, tools, and technology-rich devices like 3-D printers, laser cutters and other computer-controlled devices that make participation accessible to a wide range of students, including students with visual or physical impairments.

Makerspace support staff are available to train students on how to use the tools and technology. The resources give students who might not otherwise have an outlet for their emotions the opportunity to build, create and heal by making.

The Community

The maker movement is almost an adult, born around the turn of the century as the next iteration of the do-it-yourself, or DIY, culture. That grassroots movement has evolved and become more mainstream, with an expanded focus on community, inclusion and equity.

Stephanie Santoso, director of the Make for All initiative, is one of the advocates who has helped bring maker culture to colleges and communities. She says, “The idea of the maker mind-set is that students develop creative confidence and a sense of agency—that they have the ability to creatively solve problems on their own and with their peers. Maker-centered learning teaches life skills—critical thinking, collaboration and communication.”

Inventionland, an immersive work environment that aims to inspire creativity, promote innovation and foster education among students, educators, designers and others, describes maker culture as a movement that is “taking off worldwide. Created to address a need to get our hands dirty and pull together as a community, it is benefiting the world in many different ways. By attending group events in a close city, checking out a DIY project online, or reaching out to share your skills, you are not only be adding to this amazing culture and movement, but you are also learning and improving your personal skills as well.”

Therapeutic Activities

Librarian Gina Seymour has pioneered the idea of a “compassionate makerspace” through a program she runs in a high school. She has seen students benefit from using the makerspace as a place of healing by “making a difference in their community and the world.” She has created an extensive Grief and Bereavement Guide filled with ideas for students to create projects that help them work through their feelings and struggles. “Sometimes students just need to do something,” she notes. “Through compassionate making activities like those included in the guide, we can inspire our students to do good rather than focus on the injustice or suffering in the world.”

Seymour has also shared how her library makerspace recently served as a center for grieving for students when a classmate passed away. After using the makerspace, one student said he “felt all the sadness slip out of me little by little.” Students using the makerspace could express their pain and take the first step in their healing journey.

In addition to providing mental relief activities, makerspaces also provide psychologically safe spaces for college students to wrestle with complex developmental issues that they may be facing for the first time, such as “identity, intimacy, sociability, autonomy and generativity,” in the words of Steven Mintz of the University of Texas at Austin (an Inside Higher Ed blogger).

The Body-Mind Connection

Mark Hatch, who has been at the forefront of the maker movement since it began, wrote The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers. In it, he states that “Making is fundamental to what it means to be human. We must make, create, and express ourselves to feel whole. There is something unique about making physical things. These things are like little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our souls.”

Research shows that making things by hand enhances mental health—physical touch and activity decrease stress, relieve anxiety and modify depression.

The act of making releases our inner creativity, “which is a powerful tool for altering the inner life because making things or transforming inner states into outer productions fosters solace and satisfaction,” according to Psychology Today.

With the pandemic limiting physical gatherings, some institutions have innovated to offer digital makerspaces replete with online makerspace options, where students can continue to gather, build community and create remotely.

Yet higher education institutions are only scratching the surface of the potential of makerspaces as hubs of wellness. Campus leaders can do a number of things to promote makerspace usage among their students. Among other things, they can:

  • Encourage more professors to schedule class field trips to the makerspace or assign projects that students need to use the makerspace to complete;
  • Ensure the media center and marketing departments are regularly highlighting the benefits, location and availability of campus makerspaces;
  • Schedule regular open events and invite students to attend and fashion either a theme- or project-specific creation in the makerspace;
  • Stock the makerspace with snacks or incentives to encourage student visits; and
  • Invite campus entities such as the student government, sororities/fraternities, wellness or other organized groups to host events in the makerspaces and encourage them to market the events on social media before, during and after the events.

Clinical psychologist Maia Gambis wrote in a Washington Post article that being creative and making with one’s hands has almost the same effect as meditation. It “is another way to access a meditative state of mind and the profound healing it brings.”

Our nervous systems can only do so much at once. When we engage in an activity that forces us to concentrate on designing, coding, cutting, woodworking or sculpting, it draws our attention away from what is weighing us down.

Even if it is just for a few minutes or hours, the act of making lets everything else in the world fade away. And that is good for our—and our students’­—mental health.

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