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Tips and considerations when designing for behavioral and mental health

Affecting more than 89 million people in North America with more than $250 billion in spending and resources annually, mental illness and substance abuse disorders are serious healthcare issues.

Behavioral and mental health (BMH) facilities require solutions that can facilitate treatment while prioritizing the safety and security of patients, visitors, and staff. When considering behavioral and mental health design, material specified in these areas must be able to meet the following points:

What are the design attributes for improved mental and behavioral health?

While this seems like an obvious objective, it needs to be remembered that the primary goal of BMH facilities is to provide treatment.

Gone are the days of the sterile looking facilities. Newer buildings are incorporating brighter, more optimistic colors into their design. A more familiar, residential aesthetic allows patients to retain a sense of humanity during rehabilitation.

  • Natural finishes (wood, stone looks)
  • Increased light / outdoor views / secured outdoor spaces.
  • Calming colors
  • Quieter spaces
  • Scenes and imagery from nature
  • Open floor plans

Does this material prevent harm?

This means preventing harm to others and to the patients themselves. This is perhaps the most critical design element in designing spaces for mental health and behavioral health facilities. Every detail, furnishing, and finish needs to be considered carefully.

Much of the built environment in BMH spaces uses fixtures that are designed specifically for this segment. Reducing things like potential ligature points are a top priority.

Can these materials improve mental health outcomes?

Design and mental health have an undeniable relationship and it’s important to consider the needs of the patients when creating these spaces. Special consideration needs to be given to the patterns, color and construction of the flooring materials that is chosen. Many opt for more of a biophilic design aesthetic, bringing the patient closer to the natural world which has shown to have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.

  • Open floor plans
  • Calming colors
  • Ligature-resistant design
  • Specialized details, trims, and accessories
  • Two-part adhesives and security sealant

BMH includes so many different conditions and types of treatment that it’s important to separate them into the different levels of care that are required.

When designing low-risk zones, residential looks are appropriate and encouraged in communal spaces. Areas that fall into these categories include corridors, activity rooms, counseling rooms, interview rooms and staff or service areas.

Key considerations

  • Correct use of LRVs
  • Appropriate slip resistance level
  • Underfoot comfort
  • Forgiving with falls
  • Correct trims and accessories that deter fixation and picking.

In high-risk Level III and IV zones, safety is the highest priority. These zones are where patients spend time alone with either minimal or no supervision.

Strict design guidelines must be followed in these areas to prevent self-harm by eliminating any potential hazards, particularly fixtures that could serve as ligature points. High-risk areas include patient rooms (semiprivate or private), seclusion rooms, patient toilet rooms and showers.


What is the design thinking process in mental health?

Design thinking can be applied to mental health treatment to enhance patient care. This approach focuses on the human element, which can improve the quality of care and outcomes for patients in behavioral and mental health.

The phases of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) can be used to identify and understand the needs of patients, develop solutions that meet those needs, and test those solutions in the real world. This approach can help providers to better understand the challenges that patients face and to develop more effective treatments.

Design thinking can also be used to create a more positive and supportive environment for patients. This can be done by creating spaces that are designed to be calming and relaxing, by providing access to nature, and by creating a sense of community and belonging.

Overall, design thinking can be a valuable tool for providers who are looking to improve the quality of care for patients with mental health conditions.

Can design help mental health?

Design concepts can have a positive impact on mental health, especially when it comes to the sensory environment, integration of nature, safety and social equity, and physical activity. By incorporating these elements into the design, a designer can take a more holistic approach and create spaces that promote mental wellness.

Here are some specific examples of how design can affect mental health:

  • The sensory environment: The use of natural light, plants, and other elements can create a more calming and relaxing environment.
  • Integration of nature: Access to nature, such as parks or gardens, can help reduce stress and improve mental well-being.
  • Safety and social equity: Design that promotes safety and social equity can help reduce crime and improve mental health.
  • Physical activity: Physical activity is a well-known way to improve mental health. Design that encourages physical activity can help people stay active and improve their mental health.

By incorporating these elements into the design, a designer can create spaces that promote mental wellness.

Key considerations

  • Continuous sheet vinyl with heat-welded seams
  • Tamper-resistant floor to wall transitions
  • Monolithic floor sloped to drains
  • Soap dishes - recessed into wall to hold toiletry items and eliminate potential ligature points
  • Drains and other fixtures must be ligature and tamper resistant