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Designing for Mental Health: A Checklist

May 28, 2021
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Designers are frequently stereotyped as designing for looks and creating beautiful spaces. We believe that our calling is much higher than simply creating beautiful buildings, we know that our work can influence the lives of the individuals who utilize our spaces. We believe that design has the power to calm, inspire joy, uplift lives, and strengthen the spirit of a community.

In our Healthcare Practice, it has become more evident than ever before that our complex world relies heavily on healthcare environments that perform and inspire. We know that many times care settings host us when we are at our most vulnerable, and our experiences in these environments are both visual and emotional. As we wrap up mental health awareness month, we are taking a moment to reflect on how designers can do more to ensure that care spaces are designed to meet both the client’s program and budgetary needs, AND to foster comforting personal experiences as well.

More than 111 million Americans are living in areas with shortages of mental-health providers, according to an assessment by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That number is up from 90 million just five years ago; and the toll from the past pandemic year is still yet to be seen. Particularly in the large, urban centers that Moody Nolan serves, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged Black and Brown communities to a degree which is outpacing the services and facilities within many communities, amplifying existing challenges within an underserved population.

Creating real change inspires us to keep taking steps to improve, to innovate. Through a glimpse at a few of our recent projects, we are starting to gather what we feel are critical process steps to help us level-set or improve the mental health side effects that we are sure to see in the coming years. Imagine the change that could come from a mental health checklist on all design projects, just like we have for schedule milestone planning. Here is the start of our ‘Designing for Mental Health Checklist.’

Involve the Patients

Designers have long included clinicians and front-line staff in project charrettes and have seen that to be critical in creating an efficient program. But no matter how efficient an ambulatory building or patient floor is, it is nothing without patients who want to utilize the services. For healthcare facilities, and particularly those in historically underserved communities, we have had success with adding patients to these engagement sessions as well.

When Cleveland-based healthcare system University Hospitals (UH) wanted to develop a new facility to bring health resources to infants and mothers in the underserved area. A community advisory board with 35 organizations and more than 70 local stakeholders was created to help inform the design process and identify community needs. This was more than just a series of Town Hall presentations.

The Community Advisory Board groups informed community-centered needs – beyond and in addition to clinical needs. This collaboration led to an extensive program offering a multitude of services for family well-being – vision clinic, dental clinic, WIC Program, Pharmacy, Medical/Legal Partnership, many similar programs to what is outlined in the documents that you provided us.

This involvement in the process was proven to encourage the facility’s use when the Chief Administrative Officer shared a common comment from family members is that this facility makes them feel respected and proud of their involvement in creating this resource for everyone.

Make it Accessible

It is now clear to us that for our design work to be embraced by a community, we need to fully understand the challenges by embracing, listening to, and working to understanding their concerns. So, how do we make it more accessible? Our human-centered design approach acknowledges the existing conditions can restrain certain levels of innovation, yet we can find positive results if we keep the end-users in mind and think outside of the box – or traditional care settings. With the wide acceptance of mobile clinics and telehealth to meet care demands over the last year it only seems logical to us to continue this thought process and help our clients meet their patients where they will fully utilize services to get the help they need.

When Moody Nolan was planning the new Englewood STEM school on Chicago’s Southside, we set the project vision of creating a modern campus and an open door for all Chicago students and provide a safe and welcoming setting to become industry and community leaders.

Along with a host of other student-focused amenities, we worked with Englewood and UI Health to include the space and programming needed to be included in UI Health’s School Health Center program. Accessible to the students and the wider Englewood community, the Center provides a range of wellness and integrated healthcare services. Locating these services within the school allows some of the students to seek care for the first time ever and introduce them to cultural humanity within the care setting, making them more inclined to continue their wellness journey after graduating.

Providing Calming Confidence

Because of the stigmas surrounding mental health and hesitations to seek care, it is important to have spaces that are created in ways that are functional, welcoming, and safe. One way that we tie all of this together is by incorporating neighborhood context and familiar elements to improve spatial outcomes. Moody Nolan is committed to the design and development of healthcare facilities in our most vulnerable communities and populations so that they can feel safe and considered.

Neighborhoods Now, a pro-bono project the focused on safe re-opening during the current pandemic through the  Van Alen Institute & Urban Design Forum, focused on the business community within the Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn Gateway Business Improvement District. We have focused on retail, service, civic, and open space to ensure that CDC Guidelines are implemented so businesses can open safely. The initial outcomes required our team to develop a set of recommendations intended to empower and build safe communities. We recently received funding for implementation and are continuing to provide design services to the community in a way that can enhance the spaces surrounding it during the pandemic. As a result of the implemented spatial and graphic design solutions the fears of many community members were lessened, and they have felt confident visiting these locations again.

With the heightened awareness of mental health issues and care over the last year, maybe there are a few good things to come from the pandemic. The trends that we hope continue are a lasting emphasis on the health and well-being of each specific community and meeting patients where they are. Moody Nolan is passionate about designing places that make a positive difference in the world and we are eager to utilize and advance this checklist with our next care project.