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Fountain Hills, AZ

“Our goal was to make this unit a healing environment,” the RN said. She was leading our pre-opening tour of the inpatient psychiatric unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Healing. Her word caught my attention. She maybe didn’t know how healing it was just to hear her say they wanted their new milieu to focus on healing.

If you’ve ever been a patient, visitor, or employee on an inpatient psychiatric unit, you may have the same memories that I do of gargantuan dayrooms, glassed-in nurses’ stations, stark semi-private rooms (or even wards). These images never struck me as healing.

I’ve been retired eleven years from teaching mental health nursing to BSN students, but when a friend from our Mental Health Ministry at church called to invite me along on this tour, I immediately said yes. She had added, “The unit is supposed to be state-of-the-art.”

Curious, I hoped that state-of-the-art meant substantive changes from my memories.

We were a small group of NAMI members. The National Alliance on Mental Illness.  I’d let my NAMI membership lapse from my teaching days, but had recently joined to support them and receive their updates. At one time, my students, attending NAMI’s  open groups, had been moved by pleas of family members to consider their feelings when they visited their loved ones. “You have no idea how often we leave here and go out to our cars and cry.”

“Have you ever seen anything like it?” my friend asked as we rounded a corner of this spacious unit with wide hallways.

No, I had not.

Our tour had begun off-stage, the hallway where employees delivering something to the unit, say pharmacy or dietary, can access their delivery points without coming on-stage, the unit itself. The on-stage area is like having an inner sanctum that only those who need to have direct contact with the patients can enter and, therefore, protects the patients’ confidentiality.

The color scheme was that of the outdoors—a cream as subtle as a ray of sunshine, a sand resembling a warm summer seashore, and a sea-foam green reminding me of a Caribbean afternoon.

There were floor-to-ceiling windows, everywhere. “We wanted lots of light,” the RN said.

There were blue skies with bright clouds providing lighting in the three conversation-friendly dayrooms.

There were back-lit murals along the hallway of nature scenes—woods, rivers, gardens—and facing the footend of each bed in the private rooms.

The open nurses’ stations curved along the wall in a flow of marbled counters, appearing as elegant as those seen in upscale hotels.

There was much more to the healing environment–such as TVs, DVDs, computers, exercise equipment–so patients can stay engaged in activities promoting both mental and physical health.

When the tour finished, our group mingled quietly, awed by the healing milieu.