May 6, 2020

How Architecture Can Help Address America’s Mental Healthcare Crisis

Metropolis Magazine has published an article on CannonDesign’s mission to shift the paradigm around the design of mental health spaces.

The story, titled “How Architecture Can Help Address America’s Mental-Health-Care Crisis,” focuses on our behavioral health studio, which is dedicated to the planning, programming, and design of this highly specialized typology. The article includes insights from the leader of our Behavioral Health Practice, Tim Rommel, along with Diane Osan, David Sass and Stephanie Vito.

Below are some key excerpts from the article; the full-length article can be read online.

On the Current Crisis
In the United States, mental-health care is under-delivered and faces challenges on multiple fronts, from social stigma to scarcity of beds to inadequate insurance coverage. One in five Americans experiences some form of mental disorder, but less than half of affected people receive treatment. The picture is especially dire for children. Diane Osan, the leader of CannonDesign’s pediatric practice, calls it a “crisis,” describing children’s hospitals as “being inundated in ways that they’ve never been before around behavioral health.” She points to a range of public-health traumas that affect children: academic stress, bullying, intolerance of gender nonconformity or sexual preference, separation of families, and school shootings, as well as violence in communities and the opioid epidemic.

On Society’s Shifting Perspective of Mental Health
More than ever, behavioral-health architects must consider how to design physical and programmatic thresholds that facilitate productive exchange—between patient and caregiver, patient and researcher, patient and community or family. These thresholds not only support the therapeutic functions of care environments but also battle stigma and remove barriers to treatment. “There is a broader recognition that behavioral-health care is a vital part of overall health,” says Tim Rommel, a behavioral-health architect who directs the studio. “Mental-health issues cost this country more in terms of GDP than the first five leading physical ailments combined, and that includes cardiovascular diseases and cancer. I think our society is starting to realize that and take steps.”

On the Healing Power of Nature
Creating spaces with nature in mind has also yielded thoughtful threshold treatments, bringing the outdoors in through courtyards and atria that aid in circulation. Slated to open in 2020 in Baltimore, Sheppard Pratt Health System’s new psychiatric hospital is organized around a courtyard. Besides drawing people in through an open and welcoming entrance, it is, David Sass says, a “physical unifier,” traversed by a central corridor at all levels of the building. The nature-forward approach has also guided how the firm treated the site, resulting in a light touch that will preserve the existing slope and trees for a landscape that patients, visitors, and staff can all enjoy. “The premier concept for the entire hospital is this idea of healing in nature,” says Sass. “It’s all part of the idea that nature and healing are one.”