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'We welcomed the opportunity to transform the mental health unit'

Tara Brown
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The move to a purpose-built mental health unit from pre-fabricated buildings in the grounds of a Victorian asylum in 2011 has allowed staff to provide care and support for service users with greater safety and dignity. 

However, it is a building which mainly has plain magnolia walls interspersed with some colour and art, but a building nevertheless that had difficulty in shaking off an overpowering feel of clinical dominance.

As a result we welcomed the opportunity to work with Hospital Rooms, a charity that commissions world-class artists such as Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie to transform locked and secure mental health units in NHS hospitals.

Clearly art is the medium in which Hospital Rooms engages with mental health staff and service users, but the completed pieces are an instrument as opposed to a backdrop, which are used to enhance the experience for people within acute mental health settings and the care and support that is undertaken.

Discussions took place with service users about the environment at the Woodlands Unit and opinions were sought about which areas needed a strong focus to feel warmer and more welcoming.

The areas identified were those in which people described feeling most stressed during points in their admission. These included the review rooms on each of the four wards, the 136 suite and the Mental Health Act tribunal room.

The key functions of a mental health inpatient service are to promote and support recovery using interventions that maximise a person’s physical, emotional and psychological safety.

The skills and approaches by the multidisciplinary teams are vital in building relationships which hold hope for people who may not, at moments in time, have such a strong sense of this for themselves.

For this reason, it is crucial that the environment in which these relationships are built should not, by virtue of its sterility, undermine the warmth, compassion and human interaction that are essential to support someone to feel safe.

“Emotional responses do not occur in a physical void”

Mental health nurses – alongside other professionals – working in acute inpatient environments are exposed to a full range of emotions throughout their working days. These emotional responses do not occur in a physical void.

The emotions felt and expressed by staff and service users can be soothed or exacerbated by the environment, so this needs as much consideration as the verbal and non-verbal approaches used to hear and understand each other.

The art created by the Hospital Rooms’ artists who participated in the project has a far greater function and impact than visual stimulation alone. The art has become another contributor to the interchanges that take place in the areas, sometimes filling the silence with additional comfort as opposed to the stark blankness that was there before.

Feedback from staff and service users has in the great majority supported the sense that these creations have for some, been soothing, for others a stimulating distraction, for others still a reaffirmation of hope and creativity.

Our journey with Hospital Rooms started with a notion of something we thought and felt we needed and is approaching a close with a firm understanding of the additional therapeutic tool they have gifted us.

Tara Brown is modern matron, Woodlands Unit, Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust

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