A mental health facility is usually associated with the social stigma of being locked away in a distant and hidden place from the rest of society. A stereotype that eventually is alimented by poor designs that do not provide these medical institutions’ patients the best and most comfortable experience.
What is interesting here is the role of architecture on the psychology of its inhabitants. With the development of thought and research generated by society’s acceptance of these medical cases, mental health facilities’ design is becoming more and more open to change. Indeed, architects are aware that built spaces will eventually contribute to a large extent to patients’ rehabilitation and healing.
Adding to that, mental health is becoming a serious issue nowadays: 1 in 5 Americans suffers from mental illnesses in any given year. This means that, in fact, the demand for treatment is rising.
Dear readers, a quick note: mental health is a serious problem that should be treated, just like any other physical body illness. The brain is also an organ, just like your heart, your lungs, your stomach… Mental illness can affect anyone. It can affect you; it can affect me. It touches anyone, at any age, gender, socio-economic status, or ethnicity. Acknowledging mental illness and seeking treatment is primordial.
How Architects can contribute
As mentioned before, architecture is a significant component in the rehabilitation and treatment journey by offering the patients a positive experience. But on what grounds should they base their design?
It is essential to keep in mind that health facilities, in general terms, have a frigid and sterilized environment. Constantly lighted up by the same intensity lights, they eradicate the passage of time and create a loop of anxiety and confinement. However, steps are being taken towards more normalized designs. And this is where mental health facilities should shift to. Activating a space that feels like home will enable the patients to take control over their built environment and create a sense of autonomy.
Transparency in this kind of facility is an aspect that should not be ignored. Indeed, when we cluster elements, functions, and spaces, we automatically set boundaries between the core inhabitants of the building (patients, visitors, and staff). But in what sense is that wrong? Well, when we create physical and psychological barriers, we directly deny the sense of appropriation. We reject that home-like experience we were talking about earlier. Therefore, we will be refuting patients and visitors, thus not enabling them to adapt the space to their own needs. However, the key here is to make a good healthy balance between private and public space by generating a gradation of intensities. For example, it would be of interest to place a waiting room in an intersection of wide, lighted, and colorful hallways.
Thirdly, the usage of materials influences a lot of patients. In fact, sterile white walls and infinite linoleum corridors aren’t the exact way we would like to imagine our homes. This is why, as architects, we should think of more innovative alternatives like, for instance, wood, wall coverings, painting calming colors, ceramic tiles… Materials you would find around you, in the comfort of your home. Plus, we should not ignore the textures. They should be engaged by their humane approach.
At least once in your lifetime, I bet that you have experienced the feeling that time stops when you enter a health facility. The main reason is the lighting. Constantly homogeneous all day and all night long, it promotes the identical stressing atmosphere. When rethinking the design of mental health facilities (and health facilities too), it is vital to keep track of the passage of time, at least from the patients’ point of view. This will make them feel less depressed, less anxious, and more connected to their natural cycle. Tunable LED lighting can help, in that matter. It will create calming ambiances that will help rehabilitation.
Tip number four: consider having natural escapes, even if just visual. Inhabitants of these medical facilities should maintain a healthy connection with natural surroundings. By exposing people to sunlight, vegetation, trees, and much more, the feeling of safety is promoted. It will give an experience close to normality, which will work in favor of treating mental illnesses.
Adaptive and Controllable Environments
Designing a mental health facility should always offer the patients, visitors, and medical staff the ability to take control of their built environment. This will bring forward the comfortable usage of space by generating positive social interactions and seeking new optics.
One could also think about adaptive furniture or architecture too. Since we are talking about giving the patients, visitors, and staff the possibility to control their surroundings depending on their needs, why not push it a bit further?
Imagine chairs that could transform and become like these university chairs with a table built-in? Therapy sessions would allow the patient to draw or write from his own comfort. Imagine bedrooms with versatile divisions that could help to respond to the needs of privacy at any moment of the day and night.
Yes, we are talking about giving the patients quasi-full control of where they are. It is only to give them back the sense of an everyday life. Mental health facilities do not accommodate people with special behaviors. On the contrary: they are inhabited by brave people who took the courage to go through treatment in order to get back to normality as soon as possible.
A Shared Responsibility
Let us all be aware that we are all responsible for each other. As architects, we have the solemn duty to generate the best experiences possible in order to promote a healthier society. These created spaces should enable positive outcomes. Always.