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Elevating mental health at North Shore Medical Center

by Cathleen Lange

As designers, we’re enabling a critical shift in the perception and treatment of behavioral health. Mental illnesses affect tens of millions of people each year in the U.S., yet according to estimates, only half of the people with mental illnesses receive treatment. While misperception about these conditions persists and impairs how we approach them as a society, the demand for treatment and for facilities that deliver high-quality care continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.

Against this backdrop, we are envisioning behavioral health as a system where people are carefully evaluated, fully treated and integrated back into society with the support they need. The key to healing is to create humane, accepting, and comfortable environments that bolster both the patients and the clinical professionals. So, what do these spaces look and feel like?

A new kind of healthcare system

We recently completed the Epstein Center for Behavioral Health, a state-of-the-art psychiatric facility in Salem, Massachusetts.

Working alongside the North Shore Medical Center, we consolidated and expanded a facility that was previously a rehab hospital into an innovative, 120-bed facility, adding 54 new private beds. The unique concept behind the design was embedding the psychiatric center into a hospital setting and expanding outpatient services to include emergency care. Combining medical, surgical and behavioral health services into a single space improves access of care, enabling patients to benefit from a range of specialized clinical expertise and sophisticated technologies available on site.

Through aligning with Massachusetts General Hospital, the Epstein Center is equipped to serve a multigenerational population–from children and adults to seniors. And by providing care within the communities these patients live, the facility makes it easier for their families and caregivers to be involved in the process.

Humanizing and uplifting clinical spaces

What does it mean to be fully treated? At the Epstein Center, the approach to care is to focus on both the mental and the physical conditions of patients and place them in environments that instill a sense of safety and support.

The look and feel of the space where they are treated is especially important to the recovery process. Yet, clinical facilities have many design restrictions–not a single sharp edge is allowed, the high-risk rooms cannot have ACT ceilings or exposed blinds, and the bathroom fixtures and accessories are all fixed.

Designing the Epstein Center challenged us to find creative ways to deemphasize the clinical elements and arrive at thoughtful solutions. We identified safe products–including ligature-resistant details and tamper proof fasteners—and design elements to make these settings more therapeutic and peaceful, with the right balance of privacy and openness. Equally important to us was the safety and comfort of the clinical staff. And we addressed this in multiple ways, including designing deeper desks to enable frequent communication and effective monitoring of the patients.

Reconnecting and integrating patients

 Access to natural light, windows that invite in the surrounding views, and colorful interiors—these are all ways to make patients feel more comfortable and content in this setting.  A rooftop garden that brings in the outdoors, offers respite from the clinical spaces and promotes a sense of wellbeing.

Therapy areas that allow for multiple sessions to occur in tandem provide chances to interact and relate with each other. By thoughtfully carving out spaces for relaxation and recreation, we are empowering them to avoid isolation and connect with others, making it easier to integrate back in their life after the treatment.

Through informed design, we are increasing awareness and engagement with mental health conditions and conveying that these patients are valued members of society.

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