In our fast-paced world of oversharing, instant feedback and the need to curate what appears to be perfection, it is easy to see how anyone can suffer from mental illness. Every day in the United States, 123 people take their own lives and an untold number make an attempt. The latest celebrities to die by suicide bring to light again that this disease has the potential to affect any one of us, famous or not. And I continue to find myself asking: how do we destigmatize mental illness to allow anyone who needs help to feel comfortable seeking it out?
I believe that in addition to more openly discussing mental illness, we can also impact the stigmatization of the disease through design.
When I first began working in the behavioral health sector, I pictured what I thought behavioral health design was: a small office with a sofa, a private resort only meant for the wealthy, scenes of psych wards from old horror movies. Over the past 10 years, I have toured a number of behavioral health settings, and unfortunately, many still feel like the latter. The great news is that we as designers can change that.
We can create beautiful spaces that support patients in their journey towards mental wellness and still keep them safe from self-harm. Beauty starts by creating an interior environment that is familiar to the those seeking care. And more therapeutic environments can be achieved by:
- Using materials and finishes that connect to the natural world through texture and color.
- Giving patients choice in their environment, from multiple seating options to selecting the color of the room that uplifts their mental state.
- Providing access to daylight and views, or when that isn’t an option, providing lighting that mimics it.
None of this is new to healthcare design, but we must be more thoughtful about how we apply the same thinking in a behavioral health setting. We also need to push our industry partners to continue to develop products that look like something you would see in any other built environment, and not something used in a prison cell. I am talking about some of the smallest details: door handles, coat hooks, toilets, and faucets – things that patients touch every day.
When these elements start to look like the kind we’d encounter elsewhere, we can help destigmatize mental illness and allow people to focus on healing.
Kari Thorsen, a principal in ZGF’s Seattle office, has led the interior design and planning of projects for the region’s most prominent healthcare systems and providers: Swedish Medical Center, Seattle Children’s Hospital, CHI Franciscan Health, Virginia Mason and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.