In a recent article in The New York Times by Benedict Carey, “Expert on Mental Illness Reveals Her Own Fight,”  Dr. Marsha M. Linehan of the University of Washington, talks about the first time she was admitted to the Institute of Living, in 1961, at the age of 17. The article describes how the suicidal teenager was put in the seclusion room, “a small cell with a bed, a chair and a tiny, barred window. Yet her urge to die only deepened.”

A lot has changed in the treatment of mental illness in the decades since, including improved understanding and therapy approaches. The design of treatment facilities has also evolved, going from a security-and-durability-centric environment to one that’s designed to foster mental wellness as well as be a safe place to heal.

“Everything that we’ve learned about how design can influence physical health, we need to be applying to mental health, because in the end, it has the same effect,” says Don Thomas, a principal at St. Paul, Minn.-based BWBR.

In a recent interview with Healthcare Design Magazine, Thomas talked about the change he’s seen in the design of behavioral health care centers. For example, at Avera Behavioral Health Center (Sioux Falls, S.D.), the natural woods, color, and decorative patterns throughout the space are a stark contrast to the institutionalized looks of the past. Furnishings, including carpeting and acoustic ceilings, make the public areas quieter and thus a more enjoyable place to relax or talk with family and friends.

Upgraded designs are also carrying through to signage and wayfinding. In the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital (Minneapolis), Thomas says the signage is colorful and contains a logo for each room and an icon for each wing to help kids find their way.  “If you empower them, they start to get more control over their life and the decisions that they need to make,” he says.

These forward-thinkging designs help transform these facilities into welcoming places where patients want to go for help, while also being inviting to families members who play an important part in helping patients understand their illnesses and get better. These changes, in turn, help break down the stigma of mental health.

“It’s hard to believe that there used to be a similar stigma with other kinds of disease, whether it was diabetes or cancer. People wouldn’t talk about it; it was kind of hushed until it became mainstream,” Thomas says. “I’m hoping one day we’ll say, ‘Remember when no one ever talked about behavioral health.’ That would be amazing.”

For more on the design of mental healthcare facilities, check out this Q&A with Don Thomas.