May is Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, while promoting mental health is important all year, this special month of recognition raises the much-needed awareness surrounding mental illness, its prevalence in society, and how it affects people of all ages and backgrounds without discrimination. Most important is educating the public about mental health issues to prioritize mental well-being and to remove any stigma for individuals living with mental health conditions. Architects and engineers are rethinking the design of behavioral health spaces. The status quo for a very long time was to separate spaces used for physical healthcare from those focusing on mental healthcare. This resulted in poorer outcomes for patients who suffered with both chronic illness and behavioral issues. Recent research has demonstrated that a holistic comprehensive patient-centered care model that integrates behavioral and physical healthcare results in better patient outcomes. This transformative approach has significant implications for healthcare facilities, both in terms of design and operation.

Some key design considerations to address when creating spaces that seamlessly blend medical and behavioral health services from an architectural perspective include creating a comforting and soothing environment, providing ample natural light, and reducing the institutional feeling, making patients feel more at home.

Retrofitting existing healthcare spaces for this integration presents various challenges. The Office of Mental Health (OMH) issues guidelines to provide a safe environment. Engineered solutions for these spaces need to comply with these guidelines while simultaneously preserving the architectural aesthetic. OMH supports a multi-directed approach to the reduction of patient harm on inpatient psychiatric units including the following:

  • Completion of a patient risk assessment
  • Completion of a physical plant risk assessment
  • Ongoing staff training to ensure awareness of potential risks on units
  • Routine inspections of inpatient psychiatric units to ensure safety levels are maintained

Today, all psychiatric healthcare facilities, whether new or existing, are required to meet comprehensive accreditation standards to ensure that the risks to patient safety are minimized. Principles that support patient safety strategies include avoiding systems, assemblies and materials that can be weaponized, yield sharp edges, or provide ligature points in all locations accessible to patients.

MEP design considerations include the use of anti-ligature fixtures, sizing HVAC equipment and systems for the increased pressure drop associated with ligature-resistant HVAC diffusers and minimizing equipment in the ceiling above patient rooms.

Great strides have been made in de-stigmatizing mental health issues and in the design of spaces to care for individuals with behavioral health conditions.

Health Disparities, Chronic Conditions and Socioeconomic Factors are all barriers to mental healthcare, which still exist and that we need to change by incorporating some of the above-mentioned methods to promote improved mental health and well-being.

Loring provides expertise in designing specialty MEP systems behavioral and mental health spaces both inpatient and outpatient as well as substance abuse and addiction centers. Rahul Tikekar, Loring’s Principal in Healthcare recently was a moderator for 9th AMFP Greater NY – AMFP discussion on Integrating Behavioral Health and Medical Facilities. In 2023, Loring also presented one of our behavioral health design projects as a case study at the National Capital Regional Society of Healthcare Engineers.