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Justin Brooks of ZGF Architects: “Why mental health needs to become part of our daily dialogue around general health”

Mental health needs to become part of our daily dialogue around general health. For too long the two have been separated and that separation implies that mental health is something else, an “other.” Mental health is something you must see special doctor for and receive treatment that is hard to understand, mysterious, and often carried […]

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Mental health needs to become part of our daily dialogue around general health. For too long the two have been separated and that separation implies that mental health is something else, an “other.” Mental health is something you must see special doctor for and receive treatment that is hard to understand, mysterious, and often carried out in a separate clinic or space. Not to mention that it is usually a lower quality space, reinforcing the stigma of suffering from a shameful affliction, something not to be seen by others, something to be separated from others and discussed only in private.


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Justin Brooks.

Justin is a Principal at ZGF Architects in Portland, Oregon. As a native Oregonian and avid photographer, Justin is passionate about capturing the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest on camera and preserving the environment through low-impact design. Justin brings a global perspective to his work, allowing him to infuse the unique characteristics of climate, culture, and place into each design solution. His projects are contextually inspired, expressive, and timeless. His project experience includes the design of one of the greenest buildings in the U.S., the Rocky Mountain Institute’s net-zero energy Innovation Center and more recently the University of California, San Francisco Child, Teen and Family Center and Department of Psychiatry.

Over his 15-year professional career, Justin has held leadership and mentoring positions in the design community and at ZGF, including serving on the Advisory Board for the Boston Society of Architects, as well as the Community Design Resource Center, and as co-chair of ZGF’s Young Design Professionals group. Justin received his Bachelor of Architecture from Syracuse University.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I came into my career as an architect young and focused. Which in retrospect was not without its challenges. As a child I enjoyed losing myself in my imagination. If I couldn’t sleep, which I often could not as anxiety came to me at a young age, I would imagine all kinds of construction — elaborate tree houses, forts, other imaginary projects. I found peace in my imagination and began to spend time drawing my ideas: boats, ships, cars, and of course buildings. Like a lot of introverts, communicating is hard for me, but imagining is not. Drawing has always been a tool to communicate my ideas that was easier and more accessible. As is true in architecture, there were other visualization toys and tools, like Legos, which were certainly a childhood passion and another vehicle for visually representing the ideas trapped in my mind. My love for imagining spaces, for imagining design has never waned, and it was a natural course for me to pursue a career in design and ultimately architecture.

However, deciding on such a narrow and intense area of focus so young reinforced my introverted approach. Knowing what I wanted to pursue, I did not explore other areas of interest or have experiences that pushed me to understand my personality and its relationship to my struggle with anxiety and depression. In many ways my focus reinforced my ability to lose myself in my imagination.

I have, over the years, found a balance of introspective thought and overt communication. But it is hard. Frequent deadlines and high-intensity projects often compound my long-standing anxiety challenges. I am not sure that knowing more about my own mental health would have changed my course, but perhaps it would have helped me find strength in my voice earlier in my career and a greater level of comfort in exercising it.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

This is an issue I am passionate and deeply concerned about. First and foremost, society needs to understand mental health conditions are just that, health conditions. And that these conditions need to be treated, respected, discussed and supported. I often refer to the idea that one would not typically let high blood pressure or diabetes go untreated due to embarrassment or shame. Mental health conditions are a critical part of our overall wellbeing and can be just as dangerous or deadly. I have been close to more suicides or suicide attempts than to heart attacks or cancer cases, and in those cases the individual was suffering untreated and in silence.

It is hard for me to say why the stigma exists. In my own experience, there is a sense of failure or weakness in “admitting” to a mental health issue. That I would use the term “admit” to describe what should be a diagnosis is a scary indicator of that reluctance we feel as a society to acknowledge mental health issues.

Mental health needs to become part of our daily dialogue around general health. For too long the two have been separated and that separation implies that mental health is something else, an “other.” Mental health is something you must see special doctor for and receive treatment that is hard to understand, mysterious, and often carried out in a separate clinic or space. Not to mention that it is usually a lower quality space, reinforcing the stigma of suffering from a shameful affliction, something not to be seen by others, something to be separated from others and discussed only in private.

This visible separation of the “normal” physical health from mental health reinforces long-standing negative connotations, evoking terms like, “overly sensitive,” “unstable,” “weak,” and “crazy.” These connotations place the issue at the feet of the patient, as if the patient has failed to manage their emotions, rather than addressing mental health issues the same as physical health challenges that are measured, assessed, and treated with great success. We seem to have forgotten the brain is an organ like any other and its functions are fueled by chemicals, reactions, and electric pulses just like the rest of our bodies.

Fundamentally we need to integrate our discussion of overall wellness to include mental health, not separate it. To me, that is the biggest driver of the stigma.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

My work now is in many ways informed by my experience of being diagnosed (which was couched as “admitting” to a behavioral health issue) and my experience with the physical space where my treatment occurred. I was young — around 7 — when I had my first experience with mental health treatment. I went to cognitive therapy and it was something I didn’t want to talk about at school or elsewhere. It seemed shameful even at that time, and that was reinforced by the treatment taking place in a separate clinic, in a special office, with a special doctor. This notion of mental health conditions being atypical or abnormal is reinforced in the physical spaces where mental health issues are diagnosed and treated.

My work now is aimed at destigmatization through two avenues. The first is with the leadership, vision and support of our clients that provide me the opportunity to work with researchers and clinicians trying to reconnect general medicine with mental health. They are doing this by co-locating clinics, sharing space and experience, and by removing the sense of other, or different, from mental health conversations. I design and create shared spaces to physically bring together these discussions and create an environment, a building, that supports a reimagined model for general wellness and generates better research and treatment outcomes.

The integration of mental healthcare back into the general wellness model allows me to focus on the second part of destigmatization, which is the nature of those spaces. As an architect I have the opportunity to imagine a new type of space for mental health treatment and general wellness: one that is positive, uplifting, and dignified, which I think is really, really important. I can design spaces that feel equal to, or better than, other traditional medical environments, including spaces that are safe and secure, and creates that safety passively, without telegraphing perceptions of potential dangers a patient may pose to themselves or others through intrusive security apparatus and separations. I have the chance to use space and its attributes to participate in the normalization, treatment, and ultimately the destigmatization of mental health. This includes the incorporation of natural light, color, texture, connections to the natural environment, openness, and prospect and refuge. I have the chance to create healing environments that people want to return to again and again. And for those who are not seeking treatment, these spaces can represent important, dignified and celebrated environments, not as an “other,’ an aberration, or an abnormality.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

I came to architecture through my love of imagining and visualizing, and I came to my work specifically around mental healthcare spaces through chance. However, once I realized the impact I could have on an issue that has affected me and my family so profoundly over the years, the passion was immediate. I finally have a way through my work to directly impact this critical issue.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

I think as individuals we need to become more open about mental health. We simply need to talk about it more.

For me personally, one of the first steps I can take is simply to talk about my own struggles and hope that by sharing my experience and not passing any judgement, others can see a path to discussing their own struggles. As individuals, we need to show a supportive, welcoming and caring reception, the same way we offer that to those who suffer other types of illness.

My hope is that society will start to follow our individual leadership. We can’t normalize mental illness if we don’t make it a part of our conversations about wellness and health, and until we do that individually society cannot follow. Further, continued research, reporting, and policy discussions on an open stage, and in my humble opinion, creation of high-quality treatment spaces that support, celebrate, and dignify those activities, can only help.

Government can of course improve funding and access to mental health services for underserved communities. I would also suggest a normal discussion of behavioral health in our early education. The earlier that open conversation is folded into a discussion of wellness, be it physical, sexual, mental, or substance use, the faster the stigma can drop away.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

I use some physical tools like journal writing and fitness tracking, which remind me when I need to take a deep breath or when the physical symptoms of stress are on the rise. In my opinion, mental wellness is a combination of self-awareness, daily mental and physical exercise, and an open mind and attitude about

management and treatment of conditions. In short, there is no one strategy.

I also hope that the spaces me and my colleagues create can be one more tool to help all of us be better at our mental healthcare, in the way we give, receive and perceive it.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I enjoyed reading “Quiet,” as it helped me understand more about myself and what it means to be introverted. The book looks at our society’s intense focus on the extrovert and the challenges and opportunities that exposes. I also use some app-based meditation and sleep tools, like Calm and Head Space, to find moments to reset myself, check-in on my mental health, and re-center.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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