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Mental Health Facilities Can Help Patients Retain Dignity, Sense of Normalcy

One of the biggest hurdles that health professionals face when treating mental health patients is getting them to keep coming back.

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One of the biggest hurdles that health professionals face when treating mental health patients is getting them to keep coming back.

Why would patients avoid possibly life-saving treatment? Because many mental health facilities look scary and “institutional,” with dark colors and lighting, heavy doors that lock, sterile rooms, and a feeling of extreme confinement.

At a recent health care design conference, a journalist described his struggle to find a place where he felt comfortable getting treatment for his mental health issues. The place he ended up choosing was a renovated house surrounded by lots of greenspace. Because it felt like a home, he was motivated to go there for treatment.

Designs of facilities should make the individual feel dignified, provide a sense of choice, and take cues from the hospitality industry by providing a homelike and inviting environment.

Case studies offered these suggestions:

  • Biophilic design is about reconnecting us to the natural world by integrating lots of bright daylight, using natural building materials such as wood and stone, and offering ample views and access to green space.
  • Design social settings which includes aspects of regular life – such as a library, kitchen, store, hair salon – which helps patients learn how to live in a community setting.
  • Focus on different levels of care – elementary-, high school-, and adult-aged patients have different needs, therefore their spaces should look different.
  • Chalkboard walls in rooms allow patients to express themselves in a safe way since chalk is safe to swallow.
  • Built in window seats, desks and platform beds create a more homelike environment to bedrooms.
  • Incorporate color and positive, inspirational quotes instead of stark, sterile rooms.
  • Facilities should have a place in the community and blend into the character of the neighborhoods, emphasizing a home-like impression even through their exterior facade.
  • Telehealth is streamlining visits (which has reduced the number of no shows by 55% at some facilities), treating individuals in their homes or combining visits with a counselor and physician at a facility.

Benefits of nature

Greenspaces such as healing gardens are an essential part of creating a treatment center that connects to nature and makes individuals feel dignified and normal. They should offer places to walk, a choice of seating (something patients can control, if they want to sit alone or interact with fellow community members), and flexible space for programming and events.

A connection to nature can:

  • Improve overall sense of well-being
  • Relieve symptoms
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Create an opportunity for exercise
  • Offer a sense of control or choices
  • Provide ice breakers for patients and therapists

In Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations, studies showed that two-thirds of people chose a natural setting to retreat to when stressed, and 95% of people said they felt more calm and balanced after spending time outside.

Post-occupancy education and inspection

There is also a need to educate staff on how to maintain these types of facilities to ensure the safety of the patients and that the facility is being used as it was intended.

For example, facilities should integrate a staff training program for their maintenance and IT staff that educates them about what are acceptable replacement materials and methods of installation. A case study showed that after two years of a facility being opened, problems arose such as replacement screws and latches being improperly installed and not tamperproof-grade, causing a safety concern. Power strips and cords utilized for computer connections in nurses’ stations were loose and accessible to patients, becoming a life-threatening hazard.

After learning some lessons, this facility implemented a staff training program and is conducting an annual maintenance inspection to keep design intent and safety intact.

Providing safe, comfortable, inviting treatment facilities can do a lot toward reducing the stigma associated with mental health. As the journalist said, it reminds patients that they, too, are worth beautiful spaces.