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Evidence Based Design - it's a thing! How interior design impacts mental health

The emerging field of evidence-based design (EBD) is quickly gaining traction based on decades of scientific research. Largely applied in health care settings, this field of expertise has seen a new way of thinking in architecture and design of health care facilities to create integrative restorative environments that improve patient outcomes.

Our physical surroundings have a direct and immediate impact on mood and behaviour. Pretty sure we already knew this on a basic level. When everything around you overwhelms, irritates or in some way causes anxiety, you feel horrible. This has now been scientifically proven. Specific design elements are applied in conjunction with the principles of biophilic design, trauma-informed design and EBD to respond to the needs of patients.

These design guidelines are now making their way into other environments such as shelters, transitional housing, and therapeutic spaces.

But it's not as simple as painting any old blue or green colour (calming colours) and throwing in a plant or two in the corner. If you've ever poured over stacks of paint chips, only to hate the result once it's all over your walls, then you know it's not so easy.

Shapes, materials, art, placement, and lighting all have a very specific function and outcome. Incorporating elements of nature, patterns in nature (Biophilic Design) is another important component. For mental health professionals that are serving a population of trauma survivors, both adults and children, it is crucial to support them with a restorative space to engage in the recovery process. EBD is proven to be improving therapeutic outcomes.

The design of this environment must be approached through a trauma-informed lens. Eliminating stressors, triggers and anxiety-inducing elements is key to creating a healing space.

To put this in context, take, for example, a police interrogation room. This space has a very intentional design. It is intended to evoke vulnerability, isolation, anxiety and give power and control to the interrogators. Conversely, a spa is all about calm, relaxation and serenity.

A therapy room should respond to a patient's need for safety and empowerment. Critical to engaging in recovery is a design that is sensitive to hypervigilance - a common symptom of PTSD. Similarly, a play therapy room is about more than just the toys (expressive, aggressive, nurturing). The goal is to create a calm, nurturing space that responds to sensory and attentional issues.

Equally important are the health care and mental health professionals giving care, who are at risk for compassion fatigue or STS (secondary traumatic stress). And what about parents of kids with challenges. The list goes on. These people need a space in which to recharge their emotional batteries. The merging of the principles of design and psychology in design has a powerful and immediate impact on mood and behaviour.

As someone who is challenged with managing my depression and anxiety, the design in my (rental) home is very intentional. Not to say that my depression magically disappears because I have a beautiful space. But when I am paralyzed by my darkness, in the fetal position, binge-watching Netflix and getting vertical only long enough to eat a whole cheesecake - I don't get "stuck" there. Look around long enough and you get up with renewed resolve. Don't get me wrong - I'm no Marie Kondo, but my surroundings do bring me joy.

It's all about the Space Lift. To accomplish this does not always demand a big budget but the reward is always priceless.

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