Interior Design for Mental Health
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Disclaimer: All images are of St Clair Gardens, MIND, Foleshill, Coventry. Copyright of project belongs to IDP. All photography credit to Paul Miller Photography.
Interior design, CGI, concept and presentation by Jenny Whittingham whilst employed at IDP Group.
Mental illness does not discriminate, it can literally affect anyone at any time in their life and without prejudice. There is still a stigma involved in acknowledging mental illness and seeking treatment, further worsened by the environments in which they’re treated.
As an interior designer working for IDP and embarking on a new mental health facility project, St Clair Gardens, for MIND charity, I wanted to make sure I could make a difference. I researched into other mental healthcare facilities which were already up and running. Upon visiting (facility to remain nameless) my first experience was quite alarming. It was a real eye-opener!
The staff explained in detail about some of their patients, including the fact that many were on suicide watch. To combat this most rooms had no door handles, doors were cut at strange angles so they couldn’t use the bedsheets (or similar) as a noose, even details such as silicone flooring joints had the be hidden to prevent harm. Magazines were a problem as the staples could be removed and used for self-harm. The most critical patients had a prison cell like room. Furniture within the centre was similar to that of a child’s wacky warehouse, same fabric, wipe clean, primary colours and either fixed or heavy so it couldn’t be used as a weapon in an outburst of rage. Off the shelf furniture was pretty dreadful looking, dated and unloved.
In contrast, there is a facility in London that is the completle opposite. The building is an SOS for people who are on the ‘edge’, people can check themselves in and stay as long as they need, there are no special measures in place in terms of design restraints. The environment is a warm, welcoming home, it’s pretty normal and invites you to stay. It’s just like visiting a good friend for a chat. People leave when they feel better in themselves and are in a better state of mind.
My research was extensive, delving deeper and deeper into the psychology of design, biophilic design, design for dementia, sensory design, accessible design, healing environments for mental health and so much more. Design has the power to change our moods, redefine our physical state, affects our behaviour and in turn affects our health.
Designers can help make patients feel more dignified in their recovery. By including things like opportunities for rejuvenation and the comforts of home. When people stay away from home the lack of privacy can be overwhelming. It was also evident in my research there was a clear line between staff and patient areas, which in cases of patient medication storage it is absolutely necessary. Where possible agile working of staff within the patient areas should be encouraged to form better relationships with patients.
The design should feel familiar and integrated. Private spaces should reflect a cross between a home like environment and a hotel like feel, making it somewhere you would choose to stay as opposed to a place that needs to be endured. I managed to achieve the hotel like feel at MIND by designing my own furniture concept. As it was bespoke and fully integrated, the design was full height and fixed to the wall and all fixings were concealed. Everything fitted seamlessly within the space. The focus was on the practicality and beauty and not on the risks of people wishing to self-harm. I also included areas of personalisation, as a person is less likely to damage something that feels like it belongs to them.
Communal spaces are equally important, enhancing the care facility as a community asset. Design should incorporate a balance of communal, public and private spaces, having varying degrees of sensory activity that offer visual, auditory and verbal stimulation, subtly mimicking how we learn. After all it is about re-training the mind. People need to be able to self soothe and learn other skills that can help them succeed in the world by providing relaxation rooms and quiet spaces.
Mental health care treatment can be an isolating experience and being able to see and spend time with loved ones creates hope and aids the healing process. A shared kitchen and dining space where people can gather and reflect on their day provides a subtle form of therapy. It is important that normal everyday activities are shared and cultivate a sense of inclusion. The communal lounge at MIND incorporated furniture that was fixed and of bespoke design. Furniture was selected which was on the larger size making it less attractive to pick up and move but was still aesthetically pleasing and practical to clean.
The signage was designed with consideration for pateints with dementia and learning difficulties, making sure it was easy to navigate, tactile symbols and contrasting colours were used. Manifestation was never just about the standard dotted line at two defining heights. In the communal space I chose a tree which spanned the two floors. It could be viewed as two separate images from inside and up close but then externally within the private garden you could view the whole tree as a single image. Even the picture frames and images were designed to the last detail. The whole process was extensively thought out and the end results show this.
Nature has the power to nurture our soul (see my previous article you need biophilic design in your life) and I believe it should be present in every design, not just for mental health facilities. At MIND the definitive theme was on incorporating nature within the building. The ground floor colour scheme reflecting earth and greenery whilst the upper floor implied the sky and air. The theme continued the building design by using planting in key locations. The use of natural materials to subtly develop the flow of connecting spaces.
People respond to how they are treated. If you expect a certain type of behaviour you usually get it. Would you provide them with the wacky warehouse environment as presented in my research or the nurturing environment for healing? At MIND I opted for an uneven mix between the two, taking some practical points learnt from the bad example and incorporating the aesthetics and dynamic of the preferred example whilst incorporating additional research of my own into my design.
A well designed mental health facility will contribute to the healing of its patients and expand the therapeutic treatments given by the professionals. Mental Health care facilities should ensure the patient environment provides people with the dignity and respect they deserve. A well designed space can advance and accelerate the patient’s recovery process. Thankfully design can be a tool for ensuring a compassionate and patient-centred experience.
St Clair Gardens in Coventry received official recognition by the RIBA, receiving an award for ‘best interior design project’ but it is so much more than that, it has helped many patients recover at a record speed. The expected duration of stay for a patient based on previous experience of the staff was estimated at 2 years. At this particular facility patients stayed only 2 months. It has even gained recognition from overseas, bringing professionals from China to view the facilities and incorporate some of the design philosophy imposed. It’s exciting and empowering to know that you can make such a difference in the world.
Jenny Whittingham Design can assist your interior design aspirations in the healthcare sector by incorporating their award winning design knowledge. Contact us today by visiting www.JennyWhittingham.com, email JennyWhittinghamDesign@gmail.com or via phone on 07487 576 815.