HOW CHANGING BEHAVIORAL HEALTH NEEDS AND AWARENESS IMPACT INTERIOR DESIGN

Our understanding of how patients with mental illness should be treated has changed dramatically over the past several decades—and so has the design of mental health treatment facilities. The design of hospitals and facilities can be critical to a patient’s recovery outlook and meaningful interior design, along with a better understanding of diagnostics and care, can have positive effects on mental and behavioral healthcare within communities. 

This year’s IIDA Power Lunch at the Healthcare Design Expo and Conference in New Orleans on November 4, 2019, revolved around the many complex ins and outs of designing for behavioral health needs, from the changing stigma landscape to taking into consideration care, recovery, and compassion. The event, hosted by IIDA and sponsored by Construction Specialties, featured an industry roundtable, which explored the intersections of design, patient outcomes, and community experiences.

Here’s what the experts had to say:

Recovery and Healing

Best practices for treating and housing patients with mental illness have shifted from custodial care to person-centered recovery. This means that modern behavioral health spaces are “challenged to meet safety and security obligations while providing humane and healing patient spaces,” says Walter B. Jones, Jr., AIA, senior vice president of Campus Transformation. 

In order to create patient-centric environments, these facilities are making design choices that promote recovery, encourage well-being, and improve treatment outcomes. This can include everything from utilizing calming color palettes and adding elements of Biophilia to creating community and family gathering places that provide both patients and families with a welcoming and transparent treatment process. Staying in an inpatient facility is often stressful, but design can serve as a catalyst for enabling patients to take control of their own healing and recovery.

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New Focus on Amenities

Healing and treatment in behavioral health settings are often enhanced when a healthcare environment “helps to promote a sense of community and self-care and aids in motivating patients,” says Tim Lucas, IIDA, senior interior designer at Gresham Smith. This approach to healthcare means that giving patients their choice of various amenity offerings becomes a critical component of behavioral health facility design. 

Exercise rooms, art and creativity studios, and access to healthy food choices, the outdoors, walking trails, and group and individual activities allow patients a sense of empowerment and autonomy. These options can also foster family involvement in the wellness process, and allow patients to create lasting bonds with fellow patients and their providers.

Safety Aesthetics

Within behavioral health environments, lighting, acoustic, material, and furnishing choices are strategically made in order to incorporate the safety of patients and staff into the design and functionality. 

“Successfully reaching this goal is a balance between evoking positive emotions through aesthetics, while achieving individual safety,” says Lucas. Designers can use the latest research on the state of mental health needs to help them make informed and successful design decisions. These decisions may encompass: 

    • Patterning: Flooring patterns, for example, should be kept to a minimum as high-contrast and glare can be disorienting to some patients.
    • Wayfinding: Wayfinding throughout a behavioral health space should be clear and consistent to reduce potential confusion and agitation. 
    • Acoustics: Providing access to a quiet environment is important. Certain sound absorption materials can be used to address acoustic concerns. 
    • Lighting: The use of fluorescent lighting should be limited and replaced with warmer-toned LED lighting in order to create a softer, more comforting environment. 
    • Furnishings: Furniture should be selected based on the level of a patient’s condition.  In certain cases, furniture should be weighted and immovable; in other cases, lighter weight furniture that can be moved is beneficial. 

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Compassion and Destigmatization

Design has the power to humanize and dignify, and in order to help combat the mental health stigma landscape, behavioral health spaces today need to convey a sense of trust. “When a patient feels stripped of their personal dignity—which often happens upon entering an inpatient unit—we find, as designers, that the small details we incorporate can empower the patient and lead to a sense of satisfaction,” says Kimberly N. McMurray, AIA, principal at Behavioral Health Facility Consulting, LLC. 

Gone are the days of facilities with sterile, impersonal rooms with anxiety-inducing austere architecture. Instead, patients and their families are offered modern design features and welcoming, soothing environments. Incorporating compassionate design aids in the destigmatization of seeking and receiving mental healthcare, and the humanization of patients. According to Sara K. Wengert, AIA, principal at architecture+, interior design, coupled with activism and changes in public policy, “can have a profound effect on the avoidance of stigma associated with mental and behavioral healthcare for members of our communities, as well as for the people receiving care.” 

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