Behavioral Health: How Thoughtful Design Can Aid in the Treatment of Mental Illness and Addiction 

May 15 2023

One in five American adults and one in six American children experiences mental illness each year according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness*.   

Over the past several years, health care providers have seen a jump in patients coming in seeking mental health and addiction treatment. To accommodate the influx of patients seeking mental health care, many hospitals are seeking to expand their inpatient treatment facilities and many outpatient treatment centers have popped up across the country.  

Expanding access to behavioral health treatment and creating welcoming treatment centers are a few ways to help combat the rise of mental illness and addiction. There are many ways that architects and interior designers can encourage recovery through thoughtful design. A few examples of ways designers can assist both patients and providers in behavioral health settings include:  

Prioritizing Safety

Safety is at the forefront of every space we create but is a crucial element in the design of behavioral health facilities. When designing a behavioral health facility, designers need to create solutions to mitigate safety issues and enable a swift and effective response to emergencies.  

There are several safety elements that designers need to keep in mind when creating any behavioral health facility. Some of these elements include:   

  1. Preventing self-harm through safe design features.  
  1. Preventing elopement.  
  1. Safe isolation spaces for agitated patients.  
  1. Safe storage and organization of medications.  
  1. Nurses’ stations should promote interactions with patients, while also supporting the safety of staff and security of necessary equipment.  

Although safety is an essential element of design, the aesthetic of these treatment centers should avoid feeling sterile or institutional as much as possible. Innovative products and design solutions can help us to create environments that are welcoming and soothing, while providing a safe space for people to receive treatment. There is still a stigma surrounding seeking care for mental health and addiction treatment, and behavioral health facilities should be designed so that people are encouraged to seek treatment without feeling like they are being “committed” into an intimidating and unsafe environment.

A patient room.

Protecting Privacy

In the past, many behavioral health facilities used open-concept spaces so that providers could keep a close eye on all patients at once. As time passed, behavioral health clinics have started to implement more privacy, both for patients and providers. The combination of communal spaces, small group areas, and private rooms allows patients and providers to engage with others and take time to decompress.  

Having privacy plays a key role in the recovery process, especially for those staying for extended periods. It is also crucial for providers to have private spaces to discuss confidential patient information and to recharge during the workday. 

This is a bedroom inside of a behavioral health treatment center. The furniture was selected to ensure that the patient is comfortable and is designed with soft edges for their safety.

Meeting Diverse Needs

The needs of patients, providers, and other staff will vary based on the needs of the individual treatment center, the conditions they are treating, and the age populations of people that they serve. While there are building codes, research, and Behavioral Health Design Guidelines that will be implemented in most facilities, good behavioral health design does not follow a “one-size-fits-all” formula.  

One of the best ways designers can gauge the needs of the department is through user engagement meetings. Facility tours, space planning exercises, surveys, or just a simple conversation with representatives of all user groups are just a few ways designers can help ensure that they create a space that positively benefits the entire department and their program.

Connecting with Nature

Numerous studies have illustrated the positive impact that exposure to nature has on our stress levels and mental health. Spending time outdoors, or even simply observing imagery of nature has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.  

There are many ways that both inpatient and outpatient treatment centers can help provide all users with a connection to nature through design. A few examples include:  

  1. Increasing natural lighting by implementing or increasing the number of windows and adding skylights when appropriate.  
  1. Incorporate natural patterns, images of nature, and colors inspired by nature in the interior finish selections.  
  1. Create safe outdoor areas such as patios, courtyards, and gardens for users to enjoy time outdoors.  
Having furniture with soft edges is an important design feature in behavioral health facilities. The furniture pictured here is comfortable, cleanable, and is safe to use.

Creating Comfortable Environments

Beginning inpatient or outpatient treatment for mental illness or addiction can be stressful for the patient and their loved ones. One way that designers can help alleviate some of the stress of engaging in treatment is by creating comfortable and welcoming treatment facilities.  

One way many treatment centers create a home-like feeling is by designing their facilities to look like houses. TROSA, a licensed, residential treatment center helping individuals with substance abuse disorders, prefers to design their congregate living communities to look and feel like houses to create a comforting atmosphere.  

Exterior of TROSA's dorms on the east campus in Durham, NC. This nonprofit organization helps individuals facing substance abuse and addiction. They design their dormatories to look like white houses.

Cultivating Community

There are many ways that design can help users form relationships organically by providing spaces for them to meet and engage with each other regularly. In a behavioral health setting, these opportunities to connect are in communal spaces such as day rooms, dining areas, nurses’ stations, group therapy rooms, to name a few. 

Rendering of a day room

Good design cannot heal mental illness or addiction, but it can help aid in the treatment process.

If behavioral health treatment centers are designed to feel overly clinical or institutional, it can cause patients to feel like they are being punished for seeking treatment. When creating any behavioral health treatment facility, designers need to create comfortable and welcoming spaces that help patients be more receptive to treatment.   

*National Alliance on Mental Illness