Why this woman who once attempted suicide applauds hospital's mental-health makeover

Jennifer Decan, who has spent time in mental health units, applauds efforts by Michael Garron Hospital to change those environments in ways that will help patients get better.

Michael Garron Hospital's redevelopment project includes designs to aid mental health treatment

'It was traumatizing' says Jennifer Decan of her time in psychiatric assessment ward (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

When Jennifer Decan walks into the room, it's with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.

You wouldn't know that her battle with depression and anxiety came to a crashing halt on Feb 17, 2013.

"I felt like the only escape was suicide."

Michael Garron Hospital redevelopment project includes replacing the mental health services units (CannonDesign)

After crashing her car into a pole, Decan was taken to Brampton Civic Hospital and kept for an involuntary psychiatric assessment for 72 hours.

Restrained on the bed, in a stark white room with flickering florescent lights, she thought she faced the worst of it, until she was moved into a room with a patient who was screaming and punching the walls.

"If you're in distress ... it would be beneficial if the area that you are in, and the rooms that you are in, are designed in a way to help bring you down ... to a more relaxed, calm state." 

Her hope is being realized as more hospitals begin to consider what are known as behavioural healthcare design elements as part of their treatment plan.

A redevelopment underway at Michael Garron Hospital, formerly known as Toronto East General Hospital, is one of the latest examples.

As part of a larger project, the hospital is reconstructing its Mental Health Services unit, with a much brighter vision in mind.

"There has been beautiful movement in the way that we approach mental illness," Kirsten Martin, the hospital's director of redevelopment.told CBC Toronto.

'it looks less institutional,' says Kirsten Martin, the director of redevelopment for Michael Garron Hospital's mental health areas (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

"The idea of restraints is not something that we would go down the path of wanting to use," Martin said.

"You can have environments that are purposeful, safe, healing environments that don't look institutional." 

She says the plans for the 46 adult-care beds and six for children and youth, will include things like "access to light, reduction of noise, having spaces where people can come together, having art."

Martin says the therapeutic benefits will flow into the outdoor space, giving patients "the ability to garden."

"I think that makes everyone better when you're connected to nature," she said. 
CannonDesign's expertise in behavioural healthcare design made it a perfect fit to lead the hospital's redevelopment project. 

"We use a lot of what we call parametrics, which are evidence-based design and research to understand how space and elements of space have impact on people's healing," said Farah Rahman, the company's lead for the Toronto office.

'Environment plays a big part on healing,' says Farah Rahman with CannonDesign. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

Rahman says "evidence does show that home-like setting has a rapid healing benefit."

She says they tried to create that kind of environment with common areas where patients can interact. As for addressing the safety of patients and staff, Rahman says the design incorporates other measures.

"We would use cameras and make sure that elements are well-built so they're not easily taken apart and used against anybody." 

Where once mental health patients would have been segregated, she says today's plans are about integration.  

The design renderings were released this week and a request for proposals was issued. 

The project isn't scheduled to be completed until 2022 but Jennifer Decan can see a light at the end of the tunnel. 

"It gives me a sense of hope that somebody who is struggling and who does for whatever reason end up there, maybe having that change in scenery will be beneficial and help them in the long run."

About the Author

Makda Ghebreslassie

CBC Toronto reporter

Makda is a CBC Video-Journalist, who from time to time fills in as TV news anchor and a newsreader on Here and Now and Fresh Air. She worked in newsrooms in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor before moving back home to Toronto.