Conducting high-quality design research in a mental health setting presents significant challenges, limiting the availability of high-quality evidence to support design decisions for built environments. Here, we outline key approaches to overcoming these challenges.
In conducting a rigorous post-occupancy evaluation of a newly built mental health and addictions facility, St. Joseph’s Healthcare, Hamilton, we identified a number of systematic barriers associated with conducting design research in mental health settings.
Our approach to overcoming these barriers relied heavily upon (i) selecting established measures and methods with demonstrated efficacy in a mental health context, (ii) navigating institutional protocols designed to protect vulnerable members of this population, and (iii) designing innovative data collection strategies to increase participation in research by individuals with mental illness. Each of these approaches drew heavily on the expert knowledge of mental health settings and the experiences with mental health, facilities management, and research of a research team that was well integrated within the parent institution.
Engaging multiple stakeholders (e.g., care providers, patients, ethics board, and hospital administrators) contributed their trust and support of the research. Traditionally, post-occupancy evaluation researchers are independent of the facilities they research, yet this is not an effective approach in mental health settings. We found that, in working toward solutions to the three obstacles we described, having team members who were well “networked” within the parent institution was necessary. This approach can turn “gatekeepers” into champions for patients’ engagement in the research, which is essential in generating high-quality evidence.