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Hospital environment 'crucial' to mental health recovery, conference told

Visitors to the first Design in Mental Health Conference and Exhibition held this week were told of the importance of the built environment in helping people with mental health problems to recover. Key to the design, experts said, are lighting, noise control, and access to outside space.

“A grotty environment with great staff is always better than a great environment with grotty staff, but what we want is a great environment and great staff.”

This was the view of one service user as he explained to an audience of architects, construction companies and product developers why the environment in which mental health patients are treated is just as important as the clinical treatment they receive.

James Wooldridge was addressing delegates at the first annual Design in Mental Health Conference and Exhibition held in Birmingham this week.

A sufferer of psychosis, he now runs a consultancy, using his experience of staying in mental health facilities to help with the design of future buildings and services.
He said: “The environment in which you stay, particularly when you are suffering from severe mental illness, is really important. I have been in many facilities and sometimes the environment was particularly horrible. In one there was a painting on the wall that had been done by a service user that looked like Edvard Munch's Scream. It was almost malevolent and I remember looking at it and thinking ‘this is not good’. The environment needs to aid recovery. It really makes a difference going onto a ward where you have your own en-suite and underfloor heating.”

When asked the most important considerations for those designing mental health buildings, he added: “Lighting is very, very important and sleep is also crucial, so soundproofing can really help.

“Things have to be designed for someone who is on the road to recovery and for those who are on the top of a very high mountain. It is very difficult to meet everyone’s needs and create an environment that suits everyone.”

He added that high-tech lighting sensors need to be simple to use as some systems are too complicated, and he described some mental health furniture design as ‘patronising’.

As well as creating a therapeutic home-from-home environment, Wooldridge said fixtures and fittings also have to be robust as patients will put them to the test.

“I have been sectioned about 20 times and I spend a lot of my time in these units testing for weak materials,” he added. “Having been trained as a soldier, I always thought it was my duty to try to escape and sometimes I escaped quite successfully and some of these escapes have led to improvements in design.

“In terms of destroying things, I certainly have done. I have put a lot of things to the test. There is a lot of frustration and anger and that does lead people to thinking they have to test their powers. I often had to test my physicality.”

Professor Richard Whittington of the University of Liverpool said his research supports the importance of a therapeutic environment on mental health recovery. He told the conference: “Mental health services are there to keep you safe and to be compassionate and the physical environment has a role to play in both of these aspects.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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