Last year when we chose the topic of “mental health” for this issue, we thought this whole global pandemic thing would be over by now. We thought the world would be back to normal and that we could reflect on all the challenges — both physical and mental — resulting from our response to COVID.
We may have jumped the gun a bit.
As we approach the end of the second year of the pandemic, we find ourselves still in a strange in-between zone. Things certainly don’t feel normal, and there’s a nagging question as to whether normal is a place we ever want to go back to again. Architects (along with teachers, health care workers, and many others) were exhausted, overloaded, and stressed well before anyone had ever heard of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We still are. The world we inhabited before March of 2020 was flawed, difficult, and filled with systemic injustices. It still is.
But as we figure out what the “new normal” is going to be, we, as a profession, are in a unique position to help design a new, better world. As we continue to do the important work of protecting physical health, safety, and welfare, we are increasingly aware of the importance of supporting mental health, safety, and welfare as well. During the height of the pandemic, 40 percent of adults in the United States reported struggles with mental health or substance abuse. Fully acknowledging the importance of this issue is one positive result we can take away from these past two years. It can be one good thing that comes from this time of wrath and tears.
Good things have come from bad times before. We need look no further than our State Parks.
What began as a loose collection of historical sites at the turn of the 20th century remained underfunded and underdeveloped until the 1930s. It was then that the Great Depression — that is, federal programs created in response to the Great Depression — allowed the state parks of Texas to flourish, becoming something resembling what exists today. It was then that unemployed men from around the country enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program that put young men to work on land conservation and park development projects throughout the country. By the time the program disbanded following America’s entry into World War II, the CCC had planted more than three billion trees and constructed trails and shelters in over 800 national, state, and local parks.
More than 50,000 CCC enrollees served in Texas, and the fruits of their labor during that national crisis were still around to be enjoyed during this more recent national crisis. My family and many others made extensive use of Texas State Parks during these last two years. Our frequent weekend adventures went a long way toward preserving our mental health. Although we may have been traveling to Palmetto, Palo Duro Canyon, and Pedernales Falls largely to explore their unique features, flora, and fauna, our appreciation of those things were often framed by improvements made by the CCC some 80 years earlier.
It’s still too early to say for sure what the built artifacts of the COVID pandemic will be. COVID’s legacy may not be anything so concrete as the structures produced by the CCC during the Great Depression, but an increased appreciation of the importance of mental health will go a long way to making our new normal a much better normal.