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The second best place to be

September 1, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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The long-awaited Saint Elizabeths Hospital is a comforting environment for consumers second only to home
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It was more than a decade in the making, but in April 2010 Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. opened to consumers, filling its 292 inpatient beds (see figure 1 in slideshow). As the public psychiatric facility for the District, Saint Elizabeths serves both civil and forensic consumers, who are integrated among the facility's two intensive (for severe consumers) and transitional (for less severe consumers) wings.

Operating on the trauma-informed model of care, Saint Elizabeths acknowledges the vulnerabilities and triggers of the individuals it serves. By implementing evidence-based design strategies that balance security and comfort, the hospital not only ensures the safety of its consumers and staff, but reduces their stress levels.

Consumer privacy

According to Marc Shaw, AIA, LEED AP, principal at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Architecture & Engineering, P.C., Saint Elizabeths was designed to have the “ability for consumers to live the way they ought to.” In order to recreate a homelike setting, most are given private bedrooms, furnished with dorm-style beds, wardrobes, desks, and chairs (figure 2). All furniture is abuse-resistant with anti-ligature fixtures, and though it is moveable, staff is able to secure it if needed.

“We have higher-security furnishings if they are appropriate for a population or individual, but the idea was not to pick the worst condition and design the whole thing around that,” Shaw says. “That didn't seem to be consistent with the goals of the project.”

Instead, consumers are given their own space to come home to, a place to reflect privately after a day of treatment in the therapeutic learning center (TLC). “By virtue of having the private rooms, we've really de-stressed the environment,” says Patrick Canavan, PsyD, CEO of Saint Elizabeths. “People can go and get to a quiet comfortable place on their own for a time-out, and then come back out into the larger group spaces once they're feeling better.”

Because the hospital wants “interaction between people to be the first level of security,” according to Shaw, staff conducts checks at 30-minute intervals in the evening and night in lieu of surveillance technology. To manage this, consumers are divided among seven clusters with 27 beds. Each cluster is then divided into three units of nine beds (figure 3).

Each nine-bed unit is equipped with a single-use bathroom, providing added privacy and comfort to consumers. Bathrooms are also furnished with anti-ligature fixtures and a privacy curtain, to be used if a consumer requires staff presence during use. “But that would not be a routine thing,” Canavan notes.

Social spaces

Because social interaction reduces stress levels, Saint Elizabeths offers many planned spaces for consumers to socialize with peers, staff, and visitors.

Whether consumers prefer to gather for a quiet game of checkers or cheer for their favorite sports team on TV, a space is available to accommodate their needs. Each nine-bed unit has its own den, while the larger 27-bed cluster provides a larger living room, both equipped with TVs (figure 4).

Each cluster also has a multi-purpose room where consumers eat breakfast and dinner together, or attend other programs throughout the day. “When you have a group of 10 to 15 people playing poker or having an AA meeting, it's held in the multipurpose space,” Canavan says.

The units also provide a visiting space for family or friends, which allows them “to be on the unit without fully coming on,” says Shaw. This visiting space is located off the main corridor directly before the unit entrance.

“We're trying to have this nice balance between having families feel like a part of what's going on in treatment and maintaining privacy for everyone else,” Canavan adds.

For consumers with privileges, there is also public seating in the main lobby and outdoor picnic areas where they may meet with family and friends for a meal or visit.

Positive distractions

Saint Elizabeths offers consumers a variety of areas where they can step back from the daily stressors of treatment. “We devise a safety plan [with each consumer] ahead of time so that when something is stressful or anxiety provoking, they have alternative areas they can use to regain a sense of safety,” Canavan says.

Some of the best places to activate these safety plans are “comfort rooms,” which are located in each 27-bed cluster. Comfort rooms are equipped with stress-reducing devices, such as massage tools, weighted blankets, and perforated walls for playing music.

These spaces are glass-fronted and located off the same corridor as the clinicians’ offices, so that staff may casually monitor them without interrupting. “Sometimes you want to chill out, and that's a necessary skill,” Shaw says. “The comfort rooms are places where you can step out of the bustle.”

Other spaces in the facility encourage bustle in order to recreate what Canavan calls “the tempo of life that gets lost when you're in a hospital.” A library and an auditorium are open to the public, and Saint Elizabeths hosts several programs that bring the community onto the campus. Among these programs are political forums and debates, monthly movie nights, and a summer concert series-all open to consumers.

“If you're from D.C., it's the most normal thing to go to an outdoor concert in the summer and eat ice cream and listen to jazz,” Canavan says. “I want there to be normal experiences here.”

The use of art throughout the facility also offers consumers an opportunity to interact with the community. Through the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, Saint Elizabeths received a grant to secure six pieces of art, which are displayed in prominent areas throughout the facility (figure 5).