How Better Designed Therapy Spaces Could Improve Mental Health Treatment

The buildings we inhabit can change the way we feel. That's particularly relevant when designing mental health spaces, and yet there are no real guidelines that cover this field.

With one in five Australians experiencing a mental illness in any year, a researcher at the Melbourne School of Design says it's worth considering how to design the spaces in which therapy takes place.

Photo: article supplied

Stephanie Liddicoat is nearing the completion of her PhD on the architecture and the design of therapeutic environments, and was inspired by the idea that better designed therapeutic spaces could improve overall treatment and recovery.

"We can all picture spaces that we've walked into in our own lives that have just felt wonderful," Ms Liddicoat said.

"Conversely I think we can all picture some spaces that we've walked into that have just been awful. Hospitals are often one of them — they make us feel more stressed and anxious."

In her research, Ms Liddicoat visited therapeutic spaces in Australian and New Zealand, speaking with mental health clinicians and patients about the influence the environment had during therapeutic practices.

"The patients gave the most insight into the research — they could speak with such eloquence about their own relationship to their environment, what was supportive and made them feel calm and reduced their stress and anxiety," she said.

Ms Liddicoat explained some patients felt anxious in environments that perpetuated mental health stigmas.

"So where we might walk into a counselling facility and the receptionist is sitting behind this huge, flexiglass safety screen and there are security cameras everywhere — that suggests to them that they're dangerous, and that they're going to act out," Ms Liddicoat said.

"And that's certainly not helpful if you're trying to recover from something."

Ms Liddicoat also found that completely internal rooms, excessive use of concrete and little natural light also increased stress amongst service users.

"All of those things made the space feel like a punishment and exacerbated those negative stigmas and those ideas of abnormality," she said.

Visual and audial privacy were also very important.

"[In] a space where you might feel that you were on show, or that someone is going to intrude … you're certainly not going to open up," she said.

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