State-of-the-art psych unit designed with recovery in mind


Calming wall colors, nature-themed murals, and soft nighttime lighting are all part of a unique new state-of-the-art inpatient psychiatric unit that focuses especially on children and adolescents who have experienced significant trauma.

The 16-bed unit, which has been in the works for 3½ years and opened June 30 at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), in Baltimore, Maryland, treats youth aged 5 to 17 years. It has separate wings for younger children and for adolescents.

Dr. Sarah Edwards

“We offer a really warm and welcoming environment that we think is going to promote health and healing,” the unit’s head, Sarah Edwards, DO, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at UMMC and assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), Baltimore, said in an interview.

Previous research shows that 1 in 4 children experience some kind of maltreatment, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, and that 1 in 5 develop a diagnosable mental health disorder.

The pandemic has added to the already stressful circumstances that many youth in Baltimore and elsewhere face, Dr. Edwards noted. Recent data show that the rate of suicidal ideation among youth has increased significantly during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Urban children have unfortunately suffered a lot of what we call traumatic stress, so they might be victims of physical or sexual abuse but also face layers of stressful situations – for example, living in unsafe neighborhoods and attending schools that might not be so welcoming and safe,” said Dr. Edwards.

Safety first

Typical conditions treated at the new unit will include depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, psychotic spectrum, as well as trauma disorders.

Some of these young patients have been through the foster care system and show signs of trauma and poor attachment, Dr. Edwards noted. As a result, they may have difficulty regulating their thoughts and emotions and at times exhibit dangerous behavior.

The new unit is designed both architecturally and clinically to deliver “trauma-informed” care. This type of approach “recognizes the pervasive nature of trauma” and promotes settings that facilitate recovery, Dr. Edwards added.

The idea is to treat individuals “in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize them or make their condition worse,” she added.

Dr. Jill RachBeisel

Safety is of the utmost importance in the unit, Jill RachBeisel, MD, chief of psychiatry at UMMC and professor and chair in the department of psychiatry at UMSOM, said in an interview.

“Health care workers must recognize and respond to the effects of trauma – and one very important way is to provide care in settings that emphasize physical and emotional safety, which helps instill a sense of control and empowerment,” Dr. RachBeisel said.

Providing youth with options is an important way to provide that sense of control, Dr. Edwards added. For example, residents can choose their own music in their bedroom, such as sounds of nature, running water, or birds chirping. They can also draw or write personal notes on a large whiteboard in their unit.

Circadian-rhythm lighting

Other unique elements of the new unit include walls painted soothing shades and murals of natural scenery, created by a local artist.

“We offer a really warm and welcoming environment that we think is going to promote health and healing,” said the unit’s head, Dr. Sarah Edwards.

These murals perfectly capture “the kind of overall spirit of what we were trying to induce,” said Dr. Edwards.

A part of the unit dubbed the “front porch” has a large mural depicting “a landscape of beautiful trees and water and animals,” she noted. Kids can gather here to relax or just hang out.

The lighting at the unit mirrors circadian rhythms. It’s brighter during the day to promote wakefulness and participation in activities and gradually dims toward the evening hours to help induce restful nighttime sleep.

Safe and empowering environments such as those created by the unit help young patients learn to manage their intense emotions and adopt productive behaviors and coping skills, Dr. Edwards noted.

The staff for the interprofessional unit includes psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, occupational therapists, and others trained in pediatric care.

Advice for other centers

“Our new unit is designed to provide the highest standard in mental health care and incorporates a high-tech approach to create a calming, soothing, and engaging setting,” said Dr. RachBeisel.

Unique elements of the new unit include walls painted soothing shades.

School-transition specialists help connect discharged patients and their families to vital services and peer support. These services represent “an essential component of the continuum of care” for youth experiencing mental distress, she added.

Other organizations considering establishing a similar type of psychiatric unit should consult all stakeholders.

“We had staff, no matter what their role, be part of every step of this process, including helping with the design, picking out furniture they thought would make the most sense, and helping choose the artwork,” she said.

It is also important to incorporate feedback from youth themselves, Dr. Edwards added.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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