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March 22, 2019
by Tina Arnoldi

Applying Design Thinking to Mental Health Care

March 22, 2019 09:30 by Tina Arnoldi  [About the Author]


Design thinking, an innovative way to explore solutions in the business world, offers a creative way to solve problems with a human centered approach. The phases of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) can be used in mental health treatment and potentially improve patient care since the core approach is human centered.

The Loneliness Lab, covered in an earlier Theravive post, is one example of applying design thinking to a universal problem of loneliness. Practitioners, such as Dr Andrew Chacko, specialize in teaching clinicians and engineers how to become design thinkers. Other experts from the mental health and design fields shared their perspective on the applications of design thinking for mental health care.

Any practitioner - or patient - know that mental health treatment is complex. One size does not fit all and there are variables that may never be introduced in the therapy room during a traditional counseling session. Marli Mesibov with Mad*Pow, has experience designing with mental health in mind. Mesibov notes that “some get so excited about a challenge that they jump straight to defining the problem, and forget to empathize with the target audience.” It is easy to see this happen in the therapy room when practitioners identify problems early on, based in part on their experience, and move to “fix” them.

And although empathizing with mental health clients in the course of treatment is needed, it is not enough. Mesibov stresses the importance of “empathizing with [a] specific subset of mental health patients, since the challenges people face can vary depending on the diagnosis as well as the behavioral demographic. Without empathy and knowledge, a talented designer might design an intervention that does more harm than good.” This principle applies to practitioners who design interventions during the assessment as well as during ongoing treatment. Vaibhav Joshi, with Shape Products agrees with the need for empathy first. “When it comes to solving problems that have a human element to them, it requires a thorough understanding of the end user and how the solution impacts their life. Every patient suffering from mental health issues has a unique history, and it is important to look at [these issues] with a fresh perspective.”

Even when mental health professionals empathize with clients, they may move directly to the stage of generating ideas, without first clearly identifying the problem to solve. Mesibov said “This is how we end up with many interventions that solve problems that don’t exist.” Properly defining the true issue at hand is the “starting point for healthcare practitioners to base their diagnosis,” notes Joshi.

Pablo Solomon, a designer with education in psychology, offered insight on applying design concepts to mental health care, moving beyond the general process of design thinking. “Design is a visual representation of an idea, a concept, a plan, etc. Having the mental health client create a visual representation of what is wrong and what can be achieved is helpful. For example, when working with design clients, we often ask them to collect photos and clippings of design that they like. We then ask them to tell us what specifically is appealing about that design. The same can be done with mental health clients. Ask them to collect photos of people, art, situations, etc. that they consider representative of a healthy and productive life.”  

Solomon notes that “using design to improve mental health treatment is like using any other tool. Ultimately, the success depends on a skilled, educated, caring and experienced mental health professional using that tool productively.” Joshi summarizes the idea of using this approach in mental health care by noting how design thinking takes “a creative and open-minded approach to solving real-world problems. It focuses on the user and developing solutions that improve the overall experience.”  A successful approach to mental health care starts with the most important person, which is the individual receiving treatment, and be grounded in an empathetic approach that addresses the true problem; a core advantage of the design thinking process.

About the Author

Tina Arnoldi

Tina Arnoldi, MA is a marketing consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. Learn more about her and connect at

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