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News archive - July 2015

Designing for the future of mental health

Designing for the future of mental health

Architects have been urged to take a long-term view of mental health design and create ‘more-human’ environments, rather than ‘chucking up some ugly shed and hoping for the best’.

Explaining the impact of good design on patients, writer and mental health campaigner, Lisa Rodrigues, told the conference: “We are all here because mental health matters, but we have a long way to go.

“To be a really good client, mental health providers need to take design really, really seriously.

“As an organisation you are investing a lot of money in creating something that is going to be there for a very long time, so try to imagine how it will perform 20 years on.

“Buildings need to be flexible. Do not just chuck up some ugly shed and hope for the best. Don’t just think about making it great for today. Work very closely with your architects and build facilities that will still be just as effective in the future.”

A therapeutic environment

Sarah Wheeler, who runs the Mental Fight Club and the Dragon Café, a pop-up mental health service in London, added: “There are so many trends in the NHS and design changes so quickly that buildings we put up now are going to take us beyond current medical models.

“Psychiatric wards I know are not places you would want to be. They are places of embattlement, where you lose your identity and where there is a sense of disempowerment; where things are done to you. Historically they have been dreary and unstimulating.

“You [architects] need to be engaged in creating more-human environments from which to deliver modern mental health services.”

Providing further guidance for architects working in the sector was James Leadbitter, author of A Designer Asylum and a long-term mental health patient.

He told delegates: “A lot of the places where I have been an inpatient were not very therapeutic places to be.

“For me they have felt more punishing than loving, oppressive rather than liberating, and it seemed to be about health and safety rather than the therapeutic value of good design.

“It felt to me like mental health hospitals were in need of some ‘mad love’.”

Leadbitter has now developed the Madlove project, which will bring together people with and without mental health problems, mental health professionals and academics, artists, and designers. Their feedback is being used to create a prototype of what a psychiatric ward designed by patients might look like.

He said: “Together we will attempt to create a unique space where mutual care blossoms, stigma and discrimination are actively challenged, divisions are understood, and madness can be experienced in a less-painful way.

“The aim is to build the most-crazy, bonkers mental asylum we dare to dream of: a desirable and playful space to ‘go mad’, countering the popular myth that mental illness is dangerous and scary.”

He added: “Improvements to mental health facilities must be user driven. We become experts by experience and we have a huge amount of knowledge to share with designers. Currently, we are not tapping into that.”

Patients hold the key

Design priorities, according to the speakers, include providing access to outdoor, landscaped spaces; good natural daylight within buildings; a choice of spaces, both communal or personal; and , overall. an environment that does not feel like a prison.

“There’s a keen interest in mental health and for me it is important that we shift the approach,” said Leadbitter.

Wheeler added: “Patients want to help inform the future of hospital mental health facilities. We are able to give feedback and influence design and bring about positive change.

“Instead of psychiatric hospitals being like penitentiaries in nature; we need to move on to homely environments that are more like moderate-budget hotels.”

And architects and developers seem to have taken on board these comments.

Jonathan Wilson, principal and sector lead for healthcare at architectural practice, Stantec, said: “I passionately believe that good design is important and really contributes to a therapeutic environment.”

He said trends over the past 10 years have moved towards large, open atriums filled with natural light, far removed from the prison-like receptions of previous decades.

Woodland and landscaped gardens and courtyards are also a staple of modern developments, starting as formal lawns in public areas, then become wilder and more private as you move through developments.

Traditional double-loaded corridors are also being ditched in favour of single-sided circulation spaces that give patients improved views out of buildings.

“We have moved away from asking ‘how do we make it safe’ and are instead creating buildings that are inherently safe,” he added.

“There has been a sea change. It’s about using good design to empower users to take control of their own recovery.”

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