Illustration of living space


How Living Spaces Impact Headspaces

Student housing informs sleep, transportation, maintenance, and social interaction, which means it plays a key role in mental-health stressors.

In August of 2018, Morgan Markowitz packed up three suitcases and flew from Las Vegas to Syracuse, N.Y. She hauled those three suitcases up to the un-air-conditioned, eighth-floor dorm in DellPlain, and opened the door to her new bedroom and new life as a college freshman.

Her roommate, another freshman whom Markowitz had met on Facebook, had moved in — to both sides of the standard, open-double dorm room, rearranging the furniture to meet her needs. “I walked in and met her,” Markowitz says. “I had such a bad feeling immediately. Just from meeting her, I was uncomfortable.”

Over the next few weeks, sharing a room would become much more unpleasant than Markowitz expected. Her roommate’s stuff began to creep across the room, leaving Markowitz only a trail from her bed to the door. She locked Markowitz out of the room, and yelled at her for entering their shared space. Her roommate’s significant other was in the room a lot. Markowitz began to spend most of her time in the dorm’s lounge area.

One evening, Markowitz sat in bed, watching Netflix on her laptop with her headphones in. When she closed her laptop, Markowitz realized her roommate was having sex while Markowitz was in the room.

This happened three more times, and Markowitz couldn’t take it anymore.

She approached her resident advisor, her assistant resident director, and the housing administration, but a solution was a long way off. “I felt like no one was taking my situation seriously,” Markowitz says.

Markowitz cited the roommate agreement that both roommates signed when they moved in. The assistant resident director told her those agreements couldn’t be enforced.

McKenzie Rondeau, a former resident advisor at Sacred Heart University and current graduate student in social work at Rhode Island college, referenced her experience with roommate contracts, saying they are often more well intentioned than effective. “Sometimes [roommate contracts are] just a good place for conversation,” Rondeau says, mentioning that universities usually encourage roommates to work through their conflicts before looking for other housing options. The process to switch rooms can take several weeks, depending on the availability of rooms, and often requires parent involvement to see immediate change.

As Markowitz waited for a new room, she started losing sleep, spending her evenings crying in the hallway, and looking up flights back to Las Vegas. She began to feel depressed and anxious, avoiding her room at all costs. In addition to the issues with her roommate, the filth of their room and the old dorm carpet started making Markowitz sick.

“I considered transferring or leaving school, but I didn’t have the financial options to move out of the dorm,” Markowitz says.

“There are many characteristics of housing that can influence mental health...Those can all lead to issues around stress, mood, and mental-health outcomes.”

After multiple conversations, five formal meetings, and a phone call from her mother to the Chancellor’s office, Markowitz received some good news. On November 9, 2018, two and a half months after starting classes, Markowitz switched dorms, moving all of her belongings in an hour when she knew her roommate would be somewhere else.

After moving dorms, Markowitz began to settle in, finally finding comfort in her living situation, but her anxiety skyrocketed. She avoided her former roommate in the dining hall and around campus, worried about a volite interaction. “When we started new classes in the spring, it terrified me that we would be in the same class,” Markowitz says. “I still have a lot of fear about that.”

Markowitz is just one of the many college students who become trapped in unhealthy living situations because they lack the financial resources to move out and the slog of university bureaucracy. In fact, Makowitz is one of the nine million college and graduate students who lack consistent and secure housing in the United States.

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University conducted the “#RealCollege 2020” survey, finding that in 2019, 46% of college students were housing insecure and 17% experienced homelessness in the United States. Housing insecurity prevents students from enjoying a safe, affordable, or consistent place to live. Students often face challenges such as the inability to pay rent and utilities or having to move frequently. Students who experience homelessness lack fixed, regular, and adequate places to live, often staying on friends’ couches temporarily. The survey also reported that lack of secure housing "is associated with self-reports of poor physical health, symptoms of depression, and perceptions of higher stress."

Earle Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the departments of Family & Social Medicine and Epidemiology & Population at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. He studies how the physical environment and social interactions influence health and behavior. “There are many characteristics of housing that can influence mental health,” Chambers says, referencing maintenance, community access, and location. “Those can all lead to issues around stress, mood, and mental-health outcomes.”

In addition to the mental impact of housing insecurity, students also deal with the financial stress of housing, paying a steep price for a clean, comfortable, and welcoming place to live. While a national average cost of student housing is difficult to calculate due to differences in housing types, amenities, quality, and geography, the National Multifamily Housing Council and Axiometrics estimates that students pay about $10,000 annually in rent.


Click the icons below to learn more about dorm rooms affect residents’ mental health.

Often seen as essential to the college experience, dorms epitomize efficiency living. Some universities require students to live in dorms for the first year or two of college to help students feel integrated into campus life and activities. Residents balance challenges — cramming into tight quarters, negotiating roommate relationships, and sharing communal bathrooms — with the dorm’s convenience. Students easily walk to class, study spaces, and dining halls. But like Markowitz, dorm residents lack agency over their living environment.

In addition to problematic roommates, students don’t have control over the room’s temperature, lighting or noise level — all of which affect students’ sleep quality. Sleep hygiene — the behaviors that promote healthy sleep — includes keeping a regular sleep schedule, monitoring caffeine and alcohol intake, and creating a cool, dark, and quiet environment at night.

A researcher in psychology and neuroscience at the Center for College Sleep at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, Roxanne Prichard, Ph.D., studies and educates students and institutions on healthy sleep that benefits student wellness. “Students have a really big bias against sleep,” Prichard says. “[They think] sleep is for lazy people, but that’s a misconception.”

Prichard recommends students keep a consistent schedule, waking up, and going to bed close to the same time every day. Pulling all-nighters to do homework or staying up much later on the weekends creates a sense of jetlag and makes it hard for the body to readjust to a normal schedule and leads to daytime sleepiness. Additionally, Prichard warns against the use of substances to fall asleep such as sleeping pills, alcohol, and marajuana, which can lead to dependency and often increases insomnia and anxiety.

“Sleep disruptions exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness, and mental illnesses impair sleep. However, the converse is also true. Healthy sleep is a protective mental-health factor for wellbeing in both clinical and nonclinical populations, and treating insomnia improves depression and anxiety symptoms,” she says.

The type and time of light exposure students receive also influences healthy sleep. TCP Lighting, a company specialising in residential lighting design, researches how natural light suppresses the brain’s release of melatonin, making people feel more alert when they are exposed to sunlight. Their research found that light biologically impacts people’s sleep, cognition, and overall well being by improving moods and stabilizing circadian rhythms. An increase in exposure to light can decrease depression scores and potentially improve the brain’s performance.

While many dorm rooms only feature one or two windows, opening the blinds every morning provides an easy way to bring more light into a living situation. People are like plants. They need light to grow.

Pro Tip: Establishing a consistent nightly routine helps wind down at the end of the day and creates a sense of normalcy. This makes it easier to fall asleep.

Dorm Listing

  • Size: about 250 square feet per person
  • Amenities: convenient access to school and food sources, security, community
  • Cost: privacy, regular sleep schedule, agency over living space


Click the icons below to learn more about aparatments affect residents’ mental health.

Off-campus apartments range from cramped attic lofts with hotplates for heaters to ritzy three-bedroom condos with a swimming pool and a dog park. They’re inconsistent to say the least.

Rent ranges drastically depending on type, quality, and proximity to campus with the most expensive units located closest to school. But residing off-campus creates access issues for students — access to transportation, food sources, social interaction, and property maintenance. “Access to resources is an important component of overall well being, whether it’s physical or mental health,” says Chambers. “People that live in areas where there’s less opportunity to have access to green space or neighborhood walkability, or even health care options and healthy food environments. All of these contribute to health, physical and mental.”

Unless students can walk from their apartment to school and food sources, they must find other forms of transportation such as owning a car, using public transportation, or relying on friends for rides. Lack of transportation and food deserts — areas where access to good-quality or fresh food is prohibitively expensive or inaccessible — also contribute to food insecurity. The Hope Center’s #RealCollege Survey found 39% of respondents identified as food insecure in the prior 30 days.

Lack of transportation also can lead students to feel trapped or isolated in their residences — especially students who live alone. Daily social interaction helps combat loneliness, and the healthiest environments mitigate loneliness, says Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture and urbanism critic and author of Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. “Isolation and lack of social support increase the risk of depression,” Goldhagen writes, citing research by doctors George Engel and Franz Reichsman. “Positive social interactions are important buffers against stress.”

If students don’t have enough to be stressed about with social interactions, school work, starting a career, and mounting debt, tack on the financial strain of convenient housing. Students living in purpose-built, off-campus apartments end up paying a significant premium for location, elevators, security monitoring, and access to workout facilities and parking. Unfortunately, they also pay a premium for a well maintained place to live.

And for those who secure private apartments, dealing with unresponsive landlords present challenges for renters. Because students bounce after one or two semesters, landlords see limited value in a pleasing paint color, a non-leaky toilet, or a door that actually locks. Things break, and housing administration or landlords may arrive next week — or never.

Pro Tip: Finding the right apartment is really a matter of knowing how much you can afford in rent. Check out Bankrate to calculate your student budget and make the right decision for you.

Apartment Listing

  • Size: about 500 square feet per person
  • Amenities: privacy, agency, kitchen, pets
  • Cost: limited access, isolation, maintenance

Shared Homes

Click the icons below to learn more about shared homes affect residents’ mental health.

As appealing as a campus-adjacent loft-for-one with a personal gym and security guard may be, sometimes the budget demands fewer amenities, more roommates, and a doorbell.

Shared homes come in all shapes and sizes, but often tend to be more affordable than dorms or apartments. Whether it’s living in a fraternity or sorority house, renting a house in a neighborhood, or living at home, sharing homes with other people brings its own benefits and challenges, and most of them revolve around a sense of community.

“We are social beings and have a need to belong. Psychologists have long known that belonging is a fundamental component of positive mental-health outcomes and experiences,” says Robert Moeller, an assistant psychology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. “Often signs of psychopathology — depression in particular — is a withdrawal from social contexts. The effects of withdrawal can often exacerbate mental-health issues.”

Living in a welcoming community also makes students feel more secure, which benefits sleep and mental health. Prichard emphasized the importance of a sense of security for marginalized communities. “For students who are minoritized on campuses, often for gender or sexuality, it is not necessarily a safe or good feeling environment to be on a large [dorm] floor,” Prichard says. “A good sleep environment is one where you feel safe and free from discrimination. That’s a big part of where you feel comfortable.”

Many students find that community in a Greek social organization. Living in a sorority or fraternity house gives residents a closeness with their peers and membership into a group. Houses like these provide welcomeness and security. However, they also create a lot of noise. The implicit volume of typical Greek house activities can impede sleep.

Sharing a house also means sharing a kitchen. Group meals give residents an opportunity to bond but wade into complicated grocery-bill splitting. Who-left-the-empty-milk-container or who’s-doing-the-dishes frustrations can grow into poor roommate relations pretty quickly.

“It’s just too much tension,” says Utkarsha Laharia, a graduate student at Syracuse University who shared a house with four other students. Arguments over splitting bills and cleaning the bathroom escalated to a toxic and dangerous environment, causing her to move out in the middle of the semester.

But moving a great distance or moving back home and becoming a commuter student can both alleviate common those common feelings of homesickness but also can make it more difficult to feel connected to campus life. “There are pros and cons [to living at home],” says Matt Wasserstrom, who moved back in with his parents for graduate school. “I get to spend more time with them before I move away, but sometimes I get FOMO,” he says, not wanting to drive back into town when his friends make spontaneous plans.

But moving a great distance or moving back home and becoming a commuter student can both alleviate common those common feelings of homesickness but also can make it more difficult to feel connected to campus life.

Pro Tip: Setting boundaries with the other people in the house helps everyone live together peacefully. Whether it’s study times, fridge agreements, or chore assignments, having some ground rules help things run smoothly.

House Listing

  • Size: about 750 square feet per person
  • Amenities: community, larger living spaces
  • Cost: commuting, multiple roommates, landlords


The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice is an organization that connects students to resources for the basic needs of food, affordable housing, transportation, childcare, and mental-health care. The Hope Center conducts research, engages and communicates with students and educators, and advocates for student needs. Email with questions.

View a complete list of resources.