A designer asylum - enhancing mental health environments

Conference hears from James Leadbitter, author and campaigner for improvements in mental health design

Leadbitter's research will help to create a prototype of an ideal mental health environment

It ain’t no bad thing to need a safe place to go mad!

This is the motto of James Leadbitter, author of A Designer Asylum and a long-term mental health patient eager to change the face of psychiatric environments across the UK and further afield.

Speaking at last week’s Design in Mental Health Conference & Exhibition in Birmingham, he revealed the importance of the built environment.

He told delegates: “I am a service user, but I am also a person.

“A lot of the places I have been an inpatient in were not very therapeutic places to be.

Good mental health is all about using your senses and good care makes us feel like we are being treated as individuals. We are not a giant flock of sheep

“For me they have felt more punishing than loving, oppressive rather than liberating, and it seemed to be about health and safety rather than the therapeutic value of good design.

“It felt to me like mental health hospitals were in need of some ‘mad love’.

Leadbitter has now developed his own Madlove project, which will bring together people with and without mental health problems, mental health professionals and academics, artists, and designers. Their feedback is being used to create a prototype of what a psychiatric ward designed by patients might look like.

He said: “Together we will attempt to create a unique space where mutual care blossoms, stigma and discrimination are actively challenged, divisions are understood, and madness can be experienced in a less-painful way.

“The aim is to build the most crazy, bonkers mental asylum we dare dream of: a desirable and playful space to ‘go mad’, countering the popular myth that mental illness is dangerous and scary. This temporary structure will be a reflexive and responsive space for exploring and redesigning madness.”

Together we will attempt to create a unique space where mutual care blossoms, stigma and discrimination are actively challenged, divisions are understood, and madness can be experienced in a less-painful way

As part of his mission, Leadbitter ran a series of workshops, both with mental health clinicians and with patients themselves.

They were asked what ‘good mental health’ smelt like, looked like, sounded like, felt like, and tasted like.

“They said that good mental health smelled like black coffee of freshly-mown grass in the spring; that it felt like a massage,” said Leadbitter.

“Their ideal asylum was like their own flat, but safe; like a garden with the sound of running water ; with no spectators, but not claustrophobic; and with the ability to go for long walks. They wanted a five-star hotel with no aggressive signage.

“Good mental health is all about using your senses and good care makes us feel like we are being treated as individuals. We are not a giant flock of sheep.

Following the initial feedback, a beta version of the ‘Madlove’ ward was created. Further surveys will now be carried out before the ‘Designer Asylum’ opens at a major exhibition space for people to visit.

“Improvements to mental health facilities must be user driven. We become experts by experience and we have a huge amount of knowledge to share with designers. Currently, we are not tapping into that,” said Leadbitter.

Click here to visit the Madlove website.

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