From Institutional to Inspiring – A New Way to Think About Trauma-Informed Environments

Room with vines in ceiling

It doesn’t take very long to walk around our schools, rehabilitation centers, mental health facilities, prisons, and other systems of care to recognize that largely, they have been constructed to be more institutional in nature. They often feature hard surfaces, maintenance-free corridors, narrow spaces, little space to be alone, almost no space to regulate, little availability for movement, non-appealing entranceways, not much natural flora, not much artistic appeal, etc. I learned a long time ago that this kind of facility sends loud messages to those who reside or are being treated there.

I remember the first day I started trauma-informed renovations in our schools. We immediately realized a reduction in difficult behaviors and a new degree of respect by most of our students as they came to appreciate their environment.

As we think about changing our institutions to be trauma-informed we need to create congruency between what outcomes we want to achieve and what messages we want to send to those in our care. We need to strive to give them hope for change and our facilities need to reflect those goals and values.

We have often spoke of the failing infrastructure of so many of our public facilities in America. I would like to suggest that if we are serious about creating change with some of our difficult populations that need special therapeutic changes, we should seriously consider the infrastructure where we are attempting to create those interventions. There should be a level of congruency between our goals and the environments we establish to achieve those goals.

We are now witnessing a new interest in architecture and interior design that is seeking to be trauma-informed in the way we create new facilities. This means we are now looking at how we stimulate the 5 senses, the ability to regulate, the ability to have healthy relationships, and how to create spaces that will facilitate healing and recovery.

If we are serious, we will intentionally address issues like group spaces, individual spaces, regulation spaces, visibility and sight lines, natural and other specific types of lighting, calming colors, nature-inspired aesthetics or those that create natural growth, availability of service animals, features for movement and direction, music and acoustic integrity, water features and other sounds, and paying attention to various other aesthetics which create calm. 

We also need to reframe our therapeutic philosophical underpinnings to make sure staff and clients are taught how their brains work, what the effects of trauma are, and how to regulate emotions with all the interventions that should be present in these rehabilitative facilities. We need to change our isolative environments to ones where there are relationships of support and accountability that are continuing to prompt and affirm self-control, change, and future growth in our capacity to cope with dysregulation.

Individuals who have experienced trauma to the point that they are emotionally dysregulated with acting-out behavior need safety, structure, and diverse environments where they can find specific tools to help them in ways that are relevant to their own neuroscientific profile. Environments that facilitate these kinds of strategies and interventions make a huge statement to those they serve. From the moment they enter the facilities, the messages and statements need to be clear that they are in a place where there is life, hope, intentionality, and inspiration.

If we are going to overcome the effects of institutionalization and create the change we are attempting to achieve in the lives of those in our care, we need to shape our environments to be inspiring.  I have seen the impact of this at Lakeside and hope that we can inspire many other organizations to create this kind of congruency in their approach to healing and recovery.

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