Person-centred Acoustic Design in Mental Health Settings

We receive information from all our senses to help understand the world around us. Sound is a key aspect of this; it is part of our intrinsic perception of a space and if the sound environment is inadequate, the building is not likely to meet users’ needs.

When we are comfortable with the sound in a space we don’t usually consider it, but when it has a negative impact it is often a cause of complaint. This is usually when sound becomes noise.  It is an individual response; the same sound source can lead to a different response in different people or in the same person when they are in a different mood, ill or undertaking a different task.

Unfortunately, we find high noise levels in many mental health settings. Due to the hard finishes and the shape and height of these spaces this sound is reflected, becomes reverberation and propagates through a space causing additional challenges.

There is often no way for an individual to control the sounds heard and for many people with poor mental health hearing is hypersensitive and sensory response to sound is exaggerated, exacerbating the challenge of noise and resulting in tiredness, anxiety, fear, confusion and aggression.  So it may seem to others that the resulting disturbance for an individual does not correspond to the original source noise.

In discussions, the main sound challenge people have in a mental health setting is around lack of control. There is no way to control the noise or escape from it.  This is particularly worrying if they are feeling tired, unwell, trying to sleep or trying to concentrate. Often people find it more difficult to concentrate in areas when people are talking, the television is on or when there is a continuous noise.

Lack of privacy and the feeling that other people can hear your personal conversations is also disliked, but, conversely, it is worrying when background noise levels are high and you cannot hear conversation that you want to be part of; this affects social interaction and inclusion and is especially relevant to people with hearing loss or tinnitus

From the perspective of hearing, the best sound environment is one without walls and ceilings that cause unnatural sound reflections and allow sound levels to rise.  So improvements should start with the aim of achieving the acoustic feel of the outside world inside and then allow for personalisation of the sound space.

Incorporating solid mass sound insulating materials into a room stops sound escaping and gives people privacy, but as these surfaces are usually sound reflective, absorption should be added to help stop reflected sound building up.  If applicable placing furniture, objects and wall panels in a space can help break up the sound waves and diffuse the sound; this teams well with absorption helping direct sound waves to the absorber

Achieving the optimal acoustic strategy will enhance the environment for all users improving localised communication and interaction, reducing disturbance, improving speech privacy, comfort and relaxation and supporting concentration; so promoting wellbeing.


Author – Andrea Harman, Ecophon (DiMHN Member)

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