New Design Approaches For Crisis Care

Historically, a severe underinvestment in mental health resources has left counties and cities with the responsibility of responding to people in crisis in non-dedicated facilities, such as justice centers and emergency departments.

This response has often been used to contain people in crisis, treating mental illness as a public safety issue rather than a health care concern. This leads to poor outcomes for patients, creates high costs for taxpayer resources, and leaves families still searching for effective ways to help their loved ones after these interventions.

Growing need for crisis care

Reshaping the approach to crisis care, healthcare providers are expanding existing clinical programs to offer more outpatient resources. Larger, more progressive systems are developing new clinical centers with specialized treatment programs to better respond to the varying acuity levels of mental health patients.

These initiatives are alleviating emergency room overcrowding and reducing the use of poorly equipped medical/surgical spaces for inpatient mental health treatment by diverting patients who present to the emergency department (ED) with mental health to specialized receiving centers.

This is reshaping the narrative surrounding mental illness and mental health treatment facilities, replacing sterile, tight-security impressions with new design approaches that give patients and their families hope and dignity.

Create human-centered crisis care spaces

A patient in mental crisis who presents for treatment may feel like his or her world is out of control. When they enter a facility, the space itself immediately becomes a tool in the treatment program. The right environment can calm and reassure, suggesting stability and a sense of clarity and control.

Designed with input from user groups and patients, different spaces within mental health facilities must align with planned treatment modalities. This may include larger, open group spaces that encourage movement and physical activity; comfortable rooms for groups to sit and have positive interactions; community spaces that encourage socialization to reduce isolation; meditative and reflective spaces with opportunities for uplifting distraction; and smaller, more intimate rooms for patients to isolate themselves when they need a safe space to regulate.

Equally important, the treatment space should be designed in a way that emphasizes patient dignity and maximizes individual autonomy, while making patients feel physically and emotionally safe.

For example, are there elements in a patient’s room that allow for customization or some control over the environment? Does furniture contribute to the feeling of security and well-being? Do staff have visibility into patients without making them feel unsafe? Do patients have options about where they spend their time outside of their individual rooms?

By asking these questions, project teams can begin to outline design approaches that support patient dignity and positively impact treatment outcomes.

Improve community access to mental health treatment

Inaugurated in 2025, the Kem and Carolyn Gardner Mental Health Crisis Care Center (HMHI Crisis Care Center) in Salt Lake City aims to change the narrative in mental health design by bringing together critical crisis services and community resources in one place.

The building’s design places a strong emphasis on hospitality and comfort, introducing a welcoming softness through repeating design patterns, layered lighting and warm materials throughout the space. Designed by FFKR Architects (Salt Lake City) and Architecture+ (Troy, NY), the building will be an exterior design expression of an investment in mental health.

That message will begin at the main entrance with a wide protective canopy. A tall glass curtain wall will flood the lobby space with natural light and a concierge will greet and direct guests from a hospitality-inspired reception desk. A warm, undulating wooden ceiling with biophilic textured wall panels will further contribute to the feeling of refuge and healing.

Space planning for mental health centers.

To meet the diverse needs of patients presenting to the 81,600-square-foot facility, the HMHI Crisis Care Center features carefully planned sequencing of spaces.

While some patients may voluntarily present themselves for care through the main entrance, others may arrive via police or ambulance in a more deregulated state. A separate, more discreet, higher security entrance serves these higher acuity patients, but still reflects the finishes and incorporates the warm design touches of the main entrance to promote dignity in this area as well.

Within the facility, the triage and assessment area will be accessed through a secure lobby. Wood ceilings and cabinets, textured wall panels, and layers of lighting will help ease the transition into sorting.

A centralized observation area in the center of three distinct reception pods will allow staff greater flexibility in positioning patients based on care needs. With patients separated by diagnosis or acuity level, separate groups can also help patient volunteers feel safer, less stressed, and less fearful.

Holistic services for mental health patients.

Comprehensive support services at the HMHI Crisis Care Center will elevate patient care with a holistic approach. An on-site mental health clinic will offer immediate counseling while connecting patients to more dedicated, long-term providers and therapy options.

Support for physical health and basic needs will be provided through a small medical clinic, a dental clinic and legal services. These specific services are designed to address the common needs of the patient population experiencing acute crisis situations.

An acute stabilization area on the third floor will provide a designated, secure space where staff can care for patients and patients can find more privacy. The unit will be divided into separate neighborhoods with different color schemes and motifs, allowing both patients and caregivers a clear sense of direction.

Access to the outdoors and nature can be an essential component of patients’ care regimens, particularly in regions like Utah, which are surrounded by landscapes and natural beauty. The HMHI Crisis Care Center will include expansive views of the surrounding landscape and access to outdoor healing gardens.

The gardens will provide a therapeutic and relaxing area for patients to relax, feel safe and experience the positive effects of nature through carefully selected landscaping materials, varied textured paths and thoughtful ground cover options.

Expand mental health care

Beyond its patients’ current situations and into the broader field of mental health, HMHI’s Crisis Care Center will also be a site to train the next generations of crisis care professionals, including social workers, nurses , psychologists, psychiatrists and more.

An integrated research component will collect and disseminate data to help caregivers implement new findings into clinical practice.

Additionally, the facility will include community outreach, training and education areas to teach others about mental health and how to care for their loved ones. The outreach program not only expands the scope of care for individual patients, but also shapes and helps reinforce the critical notion that mental health treatment is, in fact, medical care.

While there are still steps to be taken to make mental health treatment more accessible and widely available, facilities like the HMHI Crisis Care Center are demonstrating a positive step forward.

Facility design should do everything possible to help eliminate the perception of mental illness as something to be hidden or criminalized, reducing the stigma of seeking care and improving patient outcomes.

Michael Dolan, AIA, ACHA, EDAC, is principal architect at FFKR Architects (Salt Lake City) and can be reached at mdolan@ffkr.com. Sydnie Young, SCCID, NCIDQ, EDAC, is a senior associate interior designer at FFKR Architects and can be reached at syoung@ffkr.com.

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