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The fundamentals of creating an empathetic space for behavioral health care

Creating the appropriate environment in your office is essential in the provision of behavioral health care, as studies have shown that patients respond to the visual atmosphere of the therapy space*. Positive emotions can facilitate healing and wellness, while negative emotions can create isolation and distancing, impeding the effectiveness of the session. Behavioral healthcare providers must pay special attention when decorating a therapy office, making sure to consider the fundamentals of effective office decor.


Decorating a therapy office means good lighting, and natural lighting is by far the best. Wide, sweeping views of nature are also a tremendous plus. Understandably, this may not be possible in an urban setting, so given the practice’s circumstances, your mileage may vary. Soft lighting will do in a pinch, but avoid harsh fluorescent lighting at all costs; giving the blue-tinted impression of a cold, overly clinical vibe will work against even the best practitioners.


Colors should coordinated, yet subdued. In general, dark colors inspire negative emotions while light colors inspire positive emotions, but bear in mind that the color white has been known to create stress in patients with heightened environmental sensitivity. As far as which specific palettes effect the most positive patient responses, the debate continues. There may not ever be one specific color scheme that applies equally well across all settings and patients. Providers will have to try different things and determine which option works best for them. Consider, for example, the age range of the clients you serve: the office of a provider specializing in work with children will look and feel different than an office for working with other age groups.


Seating should obviously be comfortable, and having some degree of control over the arrangement will also improve the patient experience. Generally speaking, patients that are unfamiliar with the space will respond better to formal seating with regard to the kinds of chairs or couches, their spacing and positioning. Conversely, as patients become more familiar with the setting, they respond better to informal seating, even unorthodox or multi-purpose furniture (think stools, futons, or bean bag chairs). Having choices is good, but if the space can’t accommodate different options, providers should take their patients into account to make the best choice.

Other considerations

As far as flooring goes, carpeting and rugs go a long way in making the space feel cozier. Avoid cement, tile, or any other material that might make the room feel cold, sterile, or industrial.
Art is important to have to dispel the institutional vibe from a therapy room. Art that is reflective of healing and safety can contribute strongly to positive outcomes, though be careful to avoid overly provocative pieces that might inspire emotions that are not conducive for your sessions.

Behavioral health professionals keep abreast with industry knowledge and accumulate a sizable collection of literature in doing so. Books on a bookshelf provide aesthetic value to a therapy space, and can make the provider appear more relatable to the patient—particularly if the subject matter is pertinent to a specific type of problem. Your shelves are also an opportunity for some personal flair, whether your style sways more towards knick-knacks or well-worn paperbacks.

If you’re considering how to incorporate technology into your office, click here to learn about the pros and cons of different documentation methods, including electronic health records on computers or tablets.

Finally, plants have been known to reduce stress levels and bring beauty to any space. Consider leafy and/or climbing potted plants rather than spiney or flowering plants, while also taking into account whether your plant selections are low- or high-maintenance.

With the visual atmosphere representing significant leverage in the provision of care, decorating a therapy office properly should be a high priority for behavioral health professionals. Having the basics covered will contribute strongly toward effective care and improve patient health.

*Source: Pearson, M., & Wilson, H. (2012). Soothing spaces and healing places: Is there an ideal counseling room design? Psychotherapy in Australia, 18(3), 46 – 53.

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