Decades of case studies and research studies have demonstrated ways that interior design can improve mental healthcare environments. Design interventions such as altering space layouts, improving lighting and daylighting, modifying colors, and introducing natural elements have been found to reduce anxiety and aggression in some mental health patients, leading to more constructive therapies, less violence and less need for medications to control behavior, among other benefits.

A natural next step is to employ similar interventions to support and improve mental wellness in order to prevent the onset of mental distress or illness.

In a recent article in Healthcare Design magazine, executive editor Anne DiNardo reported on the growing number of interior design firms undertaking mental health facility projects. Some of this growth is due to recent regulatory and payment changes, as well as to greater social awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, that has increased demand for mental health services and thus for additional facilities and treatment centers. Some of it, though, stems from increased awareness within the mental health services community of the salutary benefits of having well-designed facilities.

An article from Psychology Today, published last February, co-authored by a physician and an architect, that describes four ways design can improve mental healthcare spaces, states, “In truth, modern, well-designed mental health treatment spaces contribute to healing and expand the therapeutic benefit provided by a skilled team of mental health professionals.” The authors also acknowledge the increasing inclusion of designers in the planning and design of mental health treatment spaces.

For their part, designers are employing evidence-based design to arrive at their proposed interventions. Currently, one of the most frequently downloaded articles on the website of the Journal of Environmental Psychology is one from 2018 of a study conducted by a team led by Roger Ulrich that examined how design interventions can help reduce aggression in psychiatric wards.

Similarly, a frequently downloaded article from the April 2020 issue of HERD: The Health Environments Research & Design Journal presents findings of a study that explored “symbolic content inferred by spatial design aspects and the ways in which design can afford, or mitigate, development of interpersonal agencies, psychological safety, and negative stigmas” in a mental health facility waiting room.

If interior design can be employed to improve the experience of patients in mental health facilities, can it also be used to help foster mental wellness and prevent the onset of conditions such as anxiety and depression? Danielle Payne, a master’s degree candidate in the department of interior design at University of Manitoba, believes it can.

For her master’s practicum she took on the task of designing a community center for teens and young adults, in particular those suffering from depression and at risk for suicide. Drawing on contemporary approaches to health care design, such as salutagenic and biophilic design theories, and incorporating findings from studies of light and color therapies as well as others, she created a design for the entire multi-story facility with a focus on providing a safe and comforting environment and a pro-social space that would serve as a resource center and provide a sense of community and places for privacy in order to boost mental wellness and counteract negative feelings and behaviors.

Payne’s project is just one example of the potential interior design has to improve mental health by creating environments that infuse spaces with positive stimuli and promote wellness. Months of confinement and isolation have taken their toll on millions of people around the world, and in response popular media have reported on ways individuals can employ design interventions in their homes to combat despair, depression and anxiety.

Similar strategies have been incorporated into workplaces as well to help alleviate stress and worry. By employing proven design solutions and strategies we can help to reduce the prompts that can trigger mental distress and the destructive behaviors that can flow from it.