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Designing for Mental Health Facilities

By R. Cameron Shantz, Director, Parkin Architects Limited

For many years, we have been designing mental health facilities with the aim of recovery. We strive to ensure all design efforts support patients’ healing. This means incorporating design elements to address the distinct needs of individuals working and residing within the facilities.

The ultimate purpose of our designs is to support full integration of people with a mental health illness, enabling their recovery while paving the way for them to move back into the community.  There they can exercise their rights of citizenship and continue their healing, while accepting the responsibilities and exploring the opportunities that come with being a member of a larger society.

In order to reach these goals, we focus on creating spaces that relate to people on a more human level. Our designs model the characteristics you might expect to have in your own home, rather than the typical institutional designs of the past.

Here is a look at some of the design elements we introduce in the mental health facilities on which we work.

Single Room Care

Offering single room care is an important contributor to creating an ideal quality of life for individuals in mental health facilities. This design helps to de-escalate issues for individuals, by providing them with a private space to which they can go.

The original St. Joseph’s Healthcare facility held four to five individuals in a room. In the new building, patients have single rooms all to themselves.

Natural Light and Exterior Views

There has been a lot of research validating the positive influence daylight has on human health. We place a real emphasis on incorporating natural light and views to the exterior wherever we can in our designs.

This can be somewhat challenging in the design of mental health facilities due to safety issues associated with using glass. To remedy this, we use special, laminated, safety-glass that resists damage and breakage.

Variety of Spaces

Our designs include a variety of spaces through which individuals can move as they feel comfortable. Starting at their individual rooms, they have the ability to live in these spaces in a manner they see fit. From there, they can move on to the spaces we create to encourage interaction with a small group of two to five people. Patients gradually gain the self-confidence and privilege to use more-central areas within the facility; these spaces are designed to accommodate even more people in one central setting, mimicking the life they will eventually have in the community.

The St. Joseph’s Healthcare facility in St Thomas exemplifies this trend. The facility uses a clinical model called the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Model, which promotes personal recovery, successful community integration and satisfactory quality of life for those who have a mental illness.

Access to Outdoors

We also look to create environments where individuals are able to gain access to the exterior of the building under a secured setting. Having the privilege to enjoy the sunshine and cool breeze is an important part of the healing process. These outdoor spaces are designed for the specific needs of those dealing with mental or psychological challenges. We provide a variety of spaces: quiet areas for contemplation, through to settings for recreational activities such as a basketball.

Electronic Security Systems

One of the features we look at carefully is the security of the facility.  The idea is to avoid being intrusive. We want to prevent the “lockdown” type of setting where employees walk around with a ring of keys. Rather, we look to provide individuals with access to different spaces in as seamless a manner as possible.

In the first instance, architectural moves are emphasized: good visibility, no hiding spots, and clear way-finding.  These design approaches are supported by the use of electronic security systems. Patients wear a small bracelet around their wrist which grants them seamless access to different areas of the facility based on their privilege level.

Spiritual Spaces

In a number of facilities, we create areas that relate to people’s spirituality. Many designs include chapels or multi-faith spaces. We are not only addressing the social side, but also the spiritual side of the human psyche; creating the opportunity for individuals to relate on a spiritual level is another important aspect to supporting recovery.

Final Thoughts

As with any Parkin design project, the purpose of our designs is to create spaces that have the power to transform life. This is no more important than in a mental health facility where we are aiming to enhance patient care and rehabilitation.

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