InvisALERT Solutions – ObservSMART

Family Matters: Designing for Empathy & Inclusion

As the understanding and treatment of behavioral health patients has evolved, so too has the approach taken by facility planners, architects, and interior designers. The design professional’s challenge is to incorporate innovative improvements while respecting the underlying realities of the facility’s purpose and function. The focus must remain firmly on advancing the organization’s mission of behavioral health treatment and vigorously safeguarding patients, staff, and visitors.

Inclusion word cloud

While the patient is at the center of the design team’s strategic decision-making, another constituency is critical in helping to form and inform the edges of the design process – the patient’s family. Ultimately, design professionals should encourage empathy toward patients and families struggling with behavioral health issues, as well as inclusion for all involved.

To achieve this delicate balance, designers should keep the following four principles in mind:

Emphasize Dignity

The strides made to destigmatize behavioral health treatment have helped redefine facility design, encouraging soothing color palettes and expansive views to the outdoors with natural daylighting, while providing other amenities. These were largely lacking in the institutional-type settings that commonly hosted behavioral health treatment programs in the recent past. Similarly, being mindful of user experience, thoughtful and skilled design can help to further this cause. Examples include wayfinding, environmental graphics, and safe and durable material selections. Materials, such as warm wood tones and stone-looking tile, should evoke a connection to nature, which is shown to improve patient outcomes.

Patients of in-patient facilities typically are not there by their choosing. Their belongings are usually taken from them, which can be jarring and dehumanizing. The process can also be disturbing to parents, siblings, spouses and other close family members. All involved may feel a sense of despair and a loss of control.

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By ensuring that their surroundings have a feel that’s more home-like and calming, as opposed to a sterile institutional facility, designers can empower, humanize, and dignify patients while helping to ease the minds of those close to them. An open and airy space filled with natural light can give a sense of hope, safety, and recovery.

For adolescents in an in-patient setting, great attention should be paid to their bedroom, which traditionally serves as a sanctuary and comfort. It should offer the flexibility and features to allow them to claim it as their own, to feel that it is theirs, and in it they are safe. Through compassionate design and attention to detail, design professionals can provide a setting that helps clinicians build trust in their behavioral health patients.

Accommodate Family

The focus on thoughtful, optimistic, and compassionate design should extend to areas where families and friends frequently gather. This includes the lobby, which should offer a welcoming environment, with a modern design that incorporates a more open landscape in the reception area. This allows for a more transparent process and can reduce anxiety for both patients and families when checking-in for the first time. Integrating smaller groups of seating allows for privacy, and a variety of seating types – such as love seats, lounge chairs, and benches – can accommodate families of all sizes.

Multipurpose centers and therapy rooms where family and patient can meet should continue the comfortable, dignified theme. The key is to promote a feeling of community among staff, visiting family and fellow patients that drives the desire to participate in their care and achieve the goals of their treatment. Providing more gathering space for family encourages them to be a critical part of the patient’s treatment during their stay, and it can also help set the groundwork for their continuing journey and care afterwards.

Promote Recovery

Spaces that inspire a sense of normalcy – such as art studios, workout areas, dining rooms with healthy meals, and access to the outdoors, while maintaining security – can help offset the loss of control and autonomy that many behavioral health patients face. Offering open gathering areas with various seating groupings and quiet spaces with access to music selection for patients, allows for flexible choices between socializing and respite during in-patient care stays. These features and comforts promote opportunities for family and loved ones to contribute to the treatment process, surrounding patients with familiar faces and situations that can aid in recovery and improve outcomes.

Ensure Safety

The overarching concern for any behavioral health facility design is ensuring the safety of patients, families, staff, and other visitors. Integrating the previously mentioned design elements safely requires creativity, research, and knowledge of the best materials, products and processes used in a behavioral health facility. Designers can’t just remove all barriers in the lobby to create a more open feel; some safety measures must remain. So instead of having the reception desk behind full-height walls, a compromise of an open concept desk with partial height safety glass may be the answer. Other design considerations involve concealing safety features, such as securing patient beds to the floor, and selecting products that are safe, but that evoke a more familiar feel to patients and their families. Techniques such as this can improve patient wellbeing and aid in their healing.

Planners, architects, and interior designers must also specify products that are unlikely to cause stress or agitation in a behavioral health patient, while reducing the risk of harm. Artwork can be colorful, but typically should remain abstract to ease overstimulation. Floors and walls should limit patterning that can be disorienting to patients. The use of sound absorbing materials and elements can help reduce distracting noise and provide privacy. Glaring light can also have deleterious effects on patients. Selecting LED light fixtures with dimming and color-changing capabilities and carefully contemplating the placement of lighting in the space, can all have an influence on the patient’s healing and encourage choice. Thoughtful consideration must be made when selecting furniture based on the patients being served. Spaces should have only the furniture they need, and it should be incapable of being turned into a weapon, such as by weighting the bottom of furniture or securing it to the floor. Other spaces may be more suited to have light, movable pieces.

A New Age for Behavioral Health Design

Much has changed in behavioral health treatment over the years. Facilities are no longer sterile, grim institutions, the stigma around mental illness is waning, and progressive providers emphasize recovery over restraint. This is a refreshing shift for the families and friends of behavioral health patients, who entrust to the facility’s staff the care of their loved one.

As more people confront their mental illness, addictions or other behavioral health concerns, the need for facilities to treat them will only grow. By keeping pace with the evolving state of treatment and care, design professionals can contribute significantly to the growth and advancement healing, recovery, and a way forward for patients and their families.

Michelle Morgan ( works in the San Diego office of Taylor Design, an architecture, interior design and strategic planning firm with five offices in California. For more information, go to

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