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A calming space: How sensory modulation rooms can help soothe in times of stress

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We can all think of a private, soothing, quiet space that makes us feel calm, and it’s not often we think of those spaces as existing in a busy urban hospital. However, new research released today is shining light on how sensory modulation rooms (SMRs) in acute care settings can provide a less intrusive alternative to medication or potentially counterproductive behavioral control methods like restraint and seclusion.

SMRs are specially designed therapeutic spaces that help individuals understand how they are affected by, and respond to, external stimuli. Through gaining this knowledge, the SMR user can develop strategies to help regulate their response to future events and challenges. This is particularly important for people who may struggle with their mental health.

Dr. Skye Barbic

PLOS ONE has recently published research from CHÉOS Scientist Dr. Skye Barbic and Blaine Bray, Program Director of Mental Health at St. Paul’s. Along with a team from UBC and Providence Health Care, which included CHÉOS Scientist Dr. Steve Mathias, the group explored how select groups of people perceive the use of SMRs in an acute inpatient psychiatric setting.

Dr. Barbic states, “Since SMRs have been introduced into psychiatric care settings, the use of seclusion, physical restraint, and medication has generally decreased, and the use of self-soothing and self-management strategies has increased.” She continues, “Despite this, no one has yet studied how health providers and service users actually feel about SMRs. This is a knowledge gap that we set out to help fill.”

The study took place at St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, where there are three mental health units, each with its own SMR. The investigators conducted one-to-one interviews with nine health providers and 10 service users who were mental health unit inpatients. Each participant was asked 14 questions, including how they heard about the unit’s SMR, how often they use or suggest using the room, and how they or their patient feel after using the room.

One of the sensory modulation rooms at St. Paul’s Hospital.

The study revealed several key themes associated with SMRs, the most prevalent being that the room helped service users feel empowered and able to practice self-management strategies, as needed. The majority of service users also felt that the SMR helped them regulate their emotions, particularly anxiety or stress, and provided an alternative management strategy to restraint, medication, and/or seclusion.

“Our results suggest that both service users and health providers in inpatient psychiatric care units view SMRs positively, as they help users establish self-control skills and focus on their recovery,” explains Dr. Barbic. “The rooms provide users with a ‘safe place’ – somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of the hospital – where they can really think about their own recovery, be mindful, and learn coping strategies that they can utilize when they leave the hospital.”

The findings from this study illustrate the potential for using SMRs to improve patient and clinician experiences, while helping patients feel more empowered, hopeful, and in control of their own health. However, to truly see the benefits of SMRs in this setting, additional education on the use and benefits of SMRs is necessary to ensure health providers can confidently educate patients on how the rooms could help in their care.

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At Advancing Health, we produce high-quality evidence to change health care through improved patient care, evidence-informed policy, and innovative health system approaches.