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  • Writer's pictureTammy Felker, RN, AIA

"It is crucial that we send the message that behavioral health patients are valued."

A Conversation with Tammy Felker, Registered Nurse and Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: The number of people reporting behavioral health issues is on the rise, a crisis often compounded by lower-than-average funding, a lack of psychiatric beds and high occupancy rates of behavioral health facilities. This week we are posting interviews with experts in behavioral health, following an NBBJ-hosted panel discussion, to learn how different parts of the country are addressing the crisis. NBBJ: You plan spaces across specialties, but you are especially focused on behavioral health facilities. Given your expertise, how should these spaces evolve?

Tammy Felker: In the past, behavioral health spaces were designed like jails and featured prison-grade materials, such as tamper-proof lighting fixtures and plumbing. As a result, these environments feel institutional and cold.

Thankfully a shift in mindset is starting to transform the industry, creating a normalized care experience so patients feel safe, but also valued. Fixtures are becoming less institutional-like, and there’s a holistic emphasis on providing warm and therapeutic spaces.

One specific area we’re investigating is the integration of circadian lighting. Regulating sleep-wake cycles is especially important to the behavioral health population for healing, and it is ripe for further study and analysis.

What are the most impactful changes that could be made to how behavioral health spaces are designed?

The first change is to rethink spatial density. Studies show that too many people in a small space can increase aggression. In behavioral health centers, giving enough square footage beyond the code minimum, so everyone has their own space, can make a difference in creating a normalized environment.

Another is to provide room for physical activity, from yoga to treadmills. Research demonstrates the positive benefits of exercise on anxiety and depression. Current building codes for inpatient behavioral health units don’t require exercise areas, but as a result, they are missing a great way to support the link between lifestyle choices and behavioral health.

A third element to consider is nature integration, ideally with access to the outdoors. Design that addresses our primal connection to nature can help decrease blood pressure and the use of pain meds. Even an area for horticultural therapy and opportunities to take care of plants can help.

Why should investments in treatment and design go hand-in-hand?

Our spaces and places convey meaning, and it is crucial that we send the message that behavioral health patients are valued. In fact, it may be more important to have a well-designed behavioral health facility than a typical healthcare space. That’s because behavioral health patients typically spend very little time in their bedroom and are constantly interacting with staff and other patients. Meals are usually in a group setting, and there are different therapy sessions, from art to group to individual sessions. Design needs to be supportive of this treatment model.

What makes you hopeful when it comes to addressing the behavioral health crisis?

The first is the Affordable Care Act and healthcare parity laws that require treatment of mental illnesses just like physical illnesses — and that people can get insurance that covers behavioral healthcare. Funding to train more doctors, nurses and other staff that specialize in behavioral health is another. In Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee is proposing an initiative that puts funding in place for a new 150-bed behavioral health teaching hospital in Seattle, along with community behavioral health centers across the state.

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