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Physical environments that support the mental health of staff and families in the NICU



The number of individuals suffering from mental and behavioral health disorders and the lack of access to treatment and appropriate facilities for these individuals are among the most pressing issues of our time. The purpose of this study is to describe the psychological challenges of staff and families in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), apply the outcomes of a study on mental health environments to the NICU setting, and make recommendations for the design of NICUs in support of mental health therapy and care.

Materials and methods

This study involved the translation of a previous study in mental and behavioral health facilities to the NICU setting. The original study involved interviews (N = 19) and online surveys (N = 134) investigating the importance and presence of particular environmental amenities intended to support mental and behavioral health settings. Data analyzed using Mann–Whitney U tests suggested that the “importance” scores of specific environmental qualities and features were significantly higher than the “effectiveness” scores. An analysis using the Dunn-Bonferroni correction revealed that some environmental qualities and features were rated as significantly more important or more effective than others. For the purposes of this paper, the variables were reexamined for applicability to NICU settings.


Twenty of the original 26 design goals for mental health units were applicable to NICUs. These goals and how they might be implemented are summarized.


Guidelines identified as being important in therapeutic environments can be applied to NICU settings.

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Support of the original study from the Foundation of the Academy of Architecture for Health, 74554/A001, 2015–2017. This article is published as part of a supplement sponsored by Philips.

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Correspondence to Mardelle McCuskey Shepley.

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Shepley, M.M., Sachs, N.A. Physical environments that support the mental health of staff and families in the NICU. J Perinatol 40 (Suppl 1), 16–21 (2020).

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