Architecture dispels prejudices about mental illness

Photo: ©Felix Gerlach

More and more people are suffering from mental illness or feeling mentally unwell.

However, while many are affected by mental illness, talking about it can still arouse feelings of guilt and shame.

But according to the Swedish architectural firm White Arkitekter, architecture can help demystify the whole issue.

Photos: ©Felix Gerlach

“Lillhagen was the madhouse, and we really didn’t want to go there,” says Jan Devyr Lernbring, who has struggled with mental illness since the age of 16 – exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse.

He vividly remembers what made the now closed psychiatric hospital in Gothenburg so scary:

“First, it was the location. It was so isolated that you had to be crazy to go there. And back then, the very name Lillhagen was synonymous with a madhouse, and the general view of mental illness was also completely different to what it is today,” he says in the interview with White Arkitekter that can be seen on YouTube.

Role of architecture in modern treatment

Jan Devyr Lernbring’s memories from the Lillhagen of the past stand in stark contrast to what he experiences today when being treated on Östra Hospital’s psychiatric ward, which White Arkitekter helped to design. Here, the traditional conventions have been done away with in the design of an open and unrestricted environment characterised by tranquillity and light. At the same time, the psychiatric ward is no longer isolated, but now integrated with the rest of the hospital.

“For several years, people have been calling into question the traditional way of building psychiatric wards. In the past, the wards were hidden away – undoubtedly with the best intentions. However, together with the depiction of psychiatric wards in films and TV series as sterile, depressing and prison-like places, it has contributed to stigmatising people with mental disorders. And the stigmatisation actually counteracts the treatment,” says Cristiana Caira, Lead Architect at White Arkitekter.

“Both Swedish and international research shows that the therapeutic environment can be crucial to the treatment of mental disorders,” she says. In fact, research from Chalmers University of Technology shows that the right interior design can reduce both the use of physical restraint on psychiatric wards as well as the number of sick days among employees.

Soft edges and tranquillity

White Arkitekter’s insights have also been used in designing Södra Älvsborg Hospital in Borås (photo), which was inaugurated in 2020.

“Our starting point was that architecture must cater for people’s need to feel safe as well as their well-being. How do we create the best possible environment for patients? We’ve worked very hard to ensure that both the interiors and the furniture lived up to our visual wishes, while also meeting high hygiene and safety requirements,” explains Susanna von Eyben, Lead Interior Designer at White Arkitekter.

In designing the interior, the emphasis has been on soft, round shapes (no sharp edges), while in choosing the colours, the architectural practice has sought to strike a balance between providing stimulating sensory impressions and instilling a sense of calm.

Good acoustics can prevent stress and anxiety

Another key area has been ensuring superior acoustics at the psychiatric ward in Borås, where Troldtekt acoustic panels have been installed on the ceilings.

“Sound is an environmental factor that we’re very careful to incorporate correctly in psychiatric building projects. Creating subdued and comfortable acoustics in a room helps to counteract the stress and anxiety that can otherwise be triggered by a noisy environment,” explains Peter Johnstone, an architect at White Arkitekter.

“The choice of materials also plays a key role. We like wood, because it adds warmth and naturalness. The materials, together with the good acoustics, contribute positively to the healing,” he adds.

You can read more about White Arkitekter’s work with healing architecture in this article