A design advocate for improving mental health, Stephen Parker brings over a decade of experience as a healthcare planner and subject matter expertise to his role as a leader in Stantec Architecture’s boundaryless Mental + Behavioral Health Practice.
Dedicated to serving vulnerable populations and elevating communities in crisis, Parker firmly believes in leadership through service. His award-winning, dignity-driven approach aims to craft aspirational care cultures that support patients on their road to recovery.
An accomplished researcher and designer with multiple honors from leading publications and institutes, Parker was the youngest licensed architect elected to the American Institute of Architects Strategic Council. He co-founded the Mental Health + Architecture Incubator there to drive meaningful progress in this critical space during the pandemic.
Defying Stigma by Design
Because we do quite a bit of work in the behavioral healthcare space globally, we sometimes need to remember that architects and designers with experience and expertise in these spaces are the exception and not the rule. Parker says there is still some stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health treatment facilities within the architecture field. As a result, many firms default to designing them like other medical, or even correctional, facilities rather than focusing on the humane needs of psychiatric spaces.
This work involves balancing safety considerations like risk mitigation features while crafting a therapeutic environment. Parker stresses that the goal should be normalizing and humanizing these settings through intentional design choices that promote dignity.
“We drive dignity by design whenever we can because that’s one key aspect of your humanity often lost in a crisis,” said Parker.
Some key areas he focuses on are giving patients autonomy and agency over their immediate surroundings.
“The aspirational relationships sought between patient and provider should inform every design decision,” said Parker. “When patients are required to ask staff to open blinds or to go to the restroom, that can craft an authority imbalance and promote a transactional relationship.”
To that end, Parker incorporates, where feasible, essential design features that allow for self-regulation, such as providing psych-safe environmental controls, psych-safe sensory features, and the ability for patients to exercise normative behaviors in their spaces, which we often take for granted.
Additionally, Parker integrates outdoor spaces like healing gardens and roof terraces into his behavioral health facility designs whenever possible. Access to nature has evidentiary mental health benefits in terms of managing mood and behavior. Outdoor spaces also give patients and staff access to fresh air and sunlight to manage their cortisol levels. What is different about Parker’s design for these spaces is that he focuses on that desire for dignity, agency, and self-regulation.
Parker is careful to avoid an institutional feeling when incorporating outdoor areas. He states there has been a cultural shift towards making these therapeutic outdoor rooms feel open while still meeting safety precautions. The practice’s projects contain outdoor spaces over 75% of the time, from open-air gardens to terraces and courtyards. Patients can access calming natural elements while unobtrusively observed by staff. The goal is for the space to aid self-regulation by offering the ability to change their environmental stimuli easily when feeling overwhelmed.
Other ways that Parker promotes self-regulation:
- Sensory-Enabled Rooms: He incorporates the latest technology, like interactive projectors with haptic responses, allowing patients to customize sensory stimuli to meet their needs. This helps develop coping skills they need going forward.
- Information Agency: Providing accessible information about treatment plans, schedules, etc., gives patients a sense of control and understanding during disorienting stays.
- Autonomy: Designs that allow free movement without heavily restricted areas can promote self-soothing behaviors like finding a quiet room, feeding oneself, or visiting a recreation area. It demonstrates trust in patients is a two-way street.
- Designed Behaviors: Elements like limiting required staff escorts for outside or bathroom access enable self-care while ensuring dignity and safety. This minimizes authority imbalances that could be retraumatizing.
Incorporating Cultural Context & Competency
Designing with community in mind is a driving factor for Stantec projects. Parker emphasizes how deeply personal mental healthcare can be, with design options holding different meanings across lived experiences. Therefore, designing facilities tailored to the local community and cultural contexts is essential.
Parker shared an example project demonstrating deep integration of local cultural needs—an Indigenous recovery center in an extremely remote, northern latitude—that will be completed in the coming year. This facility focuses on serving a remote population through programming rooted in their cultural practices and careful consideration of generational trauma. The community’s approach to this trauma includes admitting entire family units into inpatient care. It is a model of care that Parker says is a rare example of cultural self-determination and agency.
“Every community has a different approach to the engagement process. It’s fascinating to go to planning workshops because they must be translated live for some elders,” added Parker. “They have created their own model of care that’s by them and for them.”
Their approach includes on-the-land therapy, where they will venture across their lands for weeks at a time for traditional hunting, gathering, and spiritual practices. Parker explained that the treatment center acts as a locus point during those extended periods.
This intensive focus on culture permeates their entire model of care and sets a base of guiding principles for him to interpret into built form architecturally. The needs are unique to this group’s customs, so standard behavioral healthcare facility design may not sufficiently address what will aid in promoting spiritual wellness for some Indigenous peoples.
In addition to cultural factors, employing trauma-informed strategies through design mitigates retraumatizing vulnerable users. The ability to lock one’s own bathroom—even just the illusion of safety—can be psychologically comforting to patients with traumatic experiences of confinement. Designed elements regarding visibility, furnishings, and access to amenities aim to empower users by promoting physical and psychological safety.
Parker says that even signage and naming conventions require careful thought around community connotations. For example, changing labeling from “Law Enforcement Entrance” to “First Responder Entrance” shifts perceptions from punitive to assistance. Word choice matters greatly.
Addressing the Collective
Parker asserts that beyond the patient’s perspective, their designs must fully consider the experience of staff members and visiting loved ones. He explains provider burnout and compassion fatigue require significant attention, as these emotionally demanding facilities cannot function without consistent, engaged care teams.
Some ways they promote staff wellness directly through design include creating multiple small respite spaces for short mental breaks, ensuring access to outdoor restoration areas during all shifts, and integrating unobtrusive safety features that reduce adverse incidents. Enhanced amenities and environments for staff vitality help retention.
Additionally, Parker advocates for family participation in treatment and a destigmatizing design for those shared spaces. He told us about one of his parents, who has been admitted for psychiatric treatment multiple times. That personal experience has given him purpose in his approach to practice, particularly on the trauma and confusion experienced by family members when a loved one undergoes mental health hospitalization.
Families often feel a painful lack of agency or ability to understand what is happening to their loved ones during inpatient psychiatric admission.
Parker conveys that visiting a parent in facility environments through the years propelled his passion for promoting dignity-driven design like welcoming family spaces and information transparency.
Design choices can empower loved ones’ feelings of control and understanding of care procedures while allowing patients to maintain positive social connections. Flexible visitor areas optimize engagement opportunities with family members, including children, during complex treatment regimes. Based on patient feedback, dedicating space off the unit for this purpose helps lessen the feeling of isolation for those residents not receiving visitors.
As we mentioned earlier, a major goal of Parker’s designs is increasing personal agency and understanding throughout the treatment process. That applies to both patients and their families. Some examples include:
- Entry/intake areas explaining key processes in a warm, accessible manner reduce confusion. Signage guides visitors while nomenclature and connotation drive patient impressions. A “First Responder Entrance” vs. a “Law Enforcement Entrance” can convey a very different tone depending on the community served.
- Informational packets/mobile apps outlining facility amenities, daily schedules, behavioral guidelines, and educational resources on conditions empower families to aid recovery.
- Identifiable, non-restricted movement through social spaces and shared clinic spaces enables family interactions with intentional visitation policies that foster—not frustrate—bonding opportunities.
- Flexibility in visiting hours and family programming gives relatives autonomy. Spaces should facilitate activities across all generations inclusively.
- Personalization allowed in patient rooms reinforces identity. Devices like interactive wall boards for schedule notes and goals make processes transparent for families and patients without stripping agency.
The key is ensuring design does not limit critical knowledge, relationships, or choices that fuel patients’ and loved ones’ healing journeys. Facility environments should clarify rather than mystify.
Parker is a visionary thought leader seeking to ignite productive shifts and discourse surrounding mental health from within the architecture ranks. One example of these efforts to spur collaborative dialogue and change in his industry is DrawnOut!, an immersive workshop that looks at ideation and sketching solutions for mental health environments.
Created by Parker with Stantec colleagues and fellow behavioral health planners Jon Sell and Robyn Linstrom, alongside collaborators Emily Schickner of Harrison Design and designer Shahad Sadeq—who has, himself, previously been admitted to an inpatient psychiatric facility for professional burnout—the workshop grounds industry discourse with lived experience.
A panel covers best practices for sensory-sensitive environments that uphold dignity, then the participants team up to rapidly sketch solutions for often overlooked spaces in these settings that affect public perceptions, such as visitation suites. By embracing the lens of visiting loved ones with empathy, collaborative prototyping unveils innovative opportunities grounded in shared experience that reimagine how design can enable healing.
“We can create a better reality by discussing difficult subjects, expressing it in sketches and collaborating,” said Parker. “While many people might share stories about their own experiences with mental health with their loved ones, they don’t have a lot of opportunities to do so outside of a therapeutic setting. DrawnOut! became a way for us to process our own trauma and grief but also provided an educational platform for others to come together and learn design strategies for mental health.”
The DrawnOut! initiative leverages architects’ innate visual communication abilities to drive productive discourse, create bonds, provide perspective on how clinical environments truly shape experiences, and ultimately reduce stigma surrounding mental healthcare through transparency and ideals of dignity, infused into sketches Parker hopes to make available to an even wider audience.
Activating Hope & Understanding
Parker transforms behavioral healthcare design through his steadfast commitment to dignity and defying stigma by design. His portfolio of state-of-the-art psychiatric hospitals and therapeutic spaces reaches far and wide yet always remains rooted in the local cultural context. Parker balances necessary safety measures with patient agency and access to the healing benefits of nature.
Through embedding trauma-informed values into brick and mortar, coupled with a relentless drive to foster dialogue encouraging purposeful and progressive facilities, Parker advances reform, shaping the next era of mental health infrastructure across communities grappling with crisis. By giving voice to the voiceless and designing for the needs of patients, their families, and caregivers, he activates hope and understanding at multiple levels.
We celebrate you, Stephen Parker, and are excited to see where you take the behavioral healthcare industry.