A collaborative trauma-informed approach to transforming the SUCD inpatient spaces

Imagine this – as part of a grounding intervention in the Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders (SUCD) program at The Royal, a group facilitator asks clients to name three things they can see. One client responds: I see a beige wall, a corkboard with lots of papers on it, and another beige wall. 

“At SUCD, we work hard to best meet client needs – it was clear our next project was to collaborate with clients to build a trauma-informed, therapeutic space to help bring increased feelings of safety and promote wellness,” says Dr. Louise Overington, a psychologist who works with clients in the SUCD program.  

Making the decision to seek treatment in an inpatient setting is hard and takes courage; most of the clients coming to the SUCD program will have experienced trauma at some point in their lives. 

Research tells us that trauma-informed care (TIC) is best practice. 

Trauma-informed care is an approach that recognizes the effects of trauma on people's physical, mental, and emotional health and aims to create a safe and supportive environment for healing and recovery, both emotionally and physically. More recently, there has been a recognition of the benefits of trauma-informed design – design choices that help create feelings of safety, provide soothing spaces, and support clients in their physical environment.  

With this in mind, Overington and Dale Patterson, a recreation therapist involved in the project, began talking with clients about collaborating on ways to enhance inpatient areas of the SUCD program.

Dale Patterson and Dr. Louise Overington
Dr. Louise Overington, a psychologist, and Dale Patterson, a recreation therapist, are working with clients in The Royal’s SUCD program to brighten up and transform inpatient areas.

That dull beige palette that dominated the walls of common areas was replaced by soft, calming hues of green, blue, and lilac – colours like “Jack Pine,” “Bluegrass,” and “Heather Field.”

Group therapy and team rooms were repainted and renamed. For example, a multipurpose room repainted “Fairmont Green” and “Southfield Green” is now referred to as the “the forest room.” (A fitting designation given the view of trees, grassy courtyard, and raised garden beds.) The clients’ rec room is now the “sky room” (painted “Serenity Blue”) and the staff room is now “Pink Swirl,” a colour chosen because the space is considered to be the team’s “heart centre.” 

Alexis Boyle, an educator from the Ottawa Art Gallery, helped the group narrow down the final wall colours. 

The project also included a clean up of unnecessary clutter: extra carts, old bulky TVs, and racks of old brochures were removed; white boards replaced disintegrated bulletin boards. New ways of displaying client art are in the works.

 “As soon as our clients walk through the doors now there's a sense of calm, quiet, and safety,” says Patterson.  

Patterson says choosing “soothing” colours for areas where care and recovery take place enhances the comfort, dignity, and wellness of clients, and has a positive impact on staff. 

Clients described the new space as “open,” with “more space to breathe,” and “relaxful.”  

A new wall mural painted by multiple cohorts of CDU clients is also part of the drive to embrace trauma-informed design in the SUCD program. Funded by The Royal Foundation with the support of the Ottawa Art Gallery, this project serves multiple therapeutic functions, both in process and in outcome.  

The mural, now underway, will figure prominently in the inpatient lounge area of the CDU once it’s completed. Its development followed a similar process to a mural created with clients in The Royal’s Integrated Forensic Program

Images of the floral mural

Clients felt connected to the art and requested to follow the progress even after transitioning out of the inpatient program. A web page was created and updates are posted every week. SUCD social worker, Elissa Gazel, created a QR code for the page so it can be easily accessed by clients and staff.        

Patterson has been collecting feedback from some of the clients involved with the mural. Here are a few comments she has received so far: 

I’m ‘almost’ wishing I could stay in the program until the mural is finished. I want to see it finished. I can hardly wait to see it finished.

This is the first time ever that I have painted. I’ve never painted before. It’s very relaxing.

I’m excited for painting the colours on the mural.

Painting is calming.

I’m learning how to paint. I’m going to continue, I’m going to keep painting after I leave here.

Looks like I picked up a new hobby.

I love painting – look at how great this looks.

I had a rough morning, emotion-wise, and this group made me feel better.

Painting was cathartic today. I needed to paint.

This is so relaxing. I like it when everyone is painting and no one is talking. Everyone is just so into it. It’s like a Zen moment.

This transformation of the inpatient spaces is just one of the innovative, client-first initiatives in the SUCD program. Click here for more information about the Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders Program at The Royal