Architecture & Design, Health Care, and Real Estate

Designing behavioral health settings

December 31, 2018
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Todd Custer. Courtesy Custer

Behavioral health care focuses on supporting both mind and body, from the treatment of mental illness to intervention for substance abuse and other addictions. For many of us, life has intersected with behavioral health care through our own experience or our loved ones’ — and we’re not alone.

As many as one in four Americans experience a mental illness or substance use disorder each year. As anyone who has spent time in a treatment environment knows, that environment can have an enormous impact on the healing, care and work that happens within. With World Mental Health Day just behind us, I’d like to share a few design principles that support behavioral health settings. These insights are provided by Custer’s expert healthcare team, which has designed environments for a range of West Michigan health care clients and behavioral health treatment facilities.

Basic design principles for behavioral health

The basic principles of designing for a behavioral health setting are to provide safety, durability, openness and natural light, and to utilize nature. We want to humanize the behavioral health setting, building in elements that maintain a patient’s dignity and sense of safety. It’s important that patients not feel totally isolated from what’s comfortable and natural to them. It’s important also to consider the age and abilities of patients when designing a behavior health setting. For example, when Custer's health care team created a setting for children’s group therapy, we chose kid-friendly fabrics and furniture to ensure the space was functional for children in group therapy settings.

As with any environment, the healing environment sets the tone for behavior and demeanor — if a behavioral health environment is dark and closed off, it can inhibit the openness and trust needed for effective care. When the healing environment is designed with the dignity of both patient and staff in mind, there is a positive impact on treatment, ultimately allowing for better care and shorter stays.

Designing for safety and security

Of utmost concern to our customers, and to us, is making sure our design is safe and secure for patients and staff. Behavioral health settings often require furniture pieces that are heavily weighted, which can create a challenge to find heavy pieces that also are aesthetically pleasing. Thankfully, a range of furniture suppliers has risen to the task of providing options designed with both function and form in mind.

When considering furniture or any other design element, we strive to strike a balance between keeping the space open and barrier free and maintaining patient and staff security. It's also important to provide access to outdoor spaces whenever possible, as recent research has found that access to nature may be vital for mental and overall health.

The future of behavioral health design

Years of research and practice have given us these proven behavioral design principles. As we look ahead, we hope to encourage design that continues to balance privacy and openness. As with any other environment, behavioral health settings should support the varied people, journeys and tasks that intersect within them.

As treatment becomes more holistic and multifaceted, behavioral health environments should support this holistic vision for the benefit of us all. While not every facility can treat a person’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, every facility should be designed with these aspects of a person in mind. It also will be important that behavioral health design helps to create a seamless transition for patients when they leave the facility, such as incorporating spaces that patients will encounter in everyday life after treatment, to promote the best possible outcomes.