Valerie Spurrell, executive-director of Ridge Meadows Hospital, Monica Budac, occupational therapist and Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health, try out the tilting chairs in the sensory room in Ridge Meadows Hospital. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

Sensory rooms new option for mental health

Maple Ridge leading the way with three

Twirling around on a chair, enjoying brightly coloured, fibre-optic strands and absorbing aromatic soothing smells are physical acts that have mental benefits.

Those features, along with views of stars beamed on to the walls, watching air bubbles rise in a colourful water tube and weighted blankets are all available in the sensory stimulation intervention room in the psychiatric unit at Ridge Meadows Hospital.

The room, one of three in Maple Ridge, is another strategy that can help people cope with, or emerge from, depression or anxiety.

“What we’re discovering is the link between the body and the mind,” said Dr. Anson Koo, Fraser Health’s chief psychiatrist.

Just like people feel better after a massage, or smelling good scents, Koo said that physical stimulation can be soothing “and actually can take your mind away from the emotional pain you’re feeling … so your brain is not entirely focused on some of the painful emotional inputs that it’s receiving.”

The medical community doesn’t fully understand why people benefit from sensory stimulation, said Koo.

“But how the body feels can really guide and direct our emotional state. The two are powerfully linked.”

Research shows that and Koo sees that in patients who, instead of asking for medication, are simply asking to spend some time in the room, which helps calm them.

At Ridge Meadows Hospital, the sensory stimulation room has been operating since last fall within the psychiatric unit.

“People tell us they feel calm, safe and able to focus better after being in the sensory room,” he says in a Fraser Health news release.

“These sensory rooms are just one of the tools we can use to help people feel better and can be part of an overall plan to give mental-health patients the opportunity to improve resiliency in everyday life, by reducing common issues like anxiety and depression,” says the release.

An occupational therapist supervises the use of the room. Individuals can come in for stays of up to 40 minutes.

Koo said therapy also helps reduce use of psychiatric medication as people are better able to sleep.

Maple Ridge is the only city in B.C. that has three such rooms.

Koo attributes that to the “incredible energy” in Maple Ridge. Pacific Blue Cross and community services helped with setting up the other two sensory rooms.

In addition to a sensory room in the hospital, there is also a sensory room in the Maple Ridge Mental Health Centre at the public health unit, as well as at Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Community Services so people can still have access as outpatients.

“We’re really thankful to the Ridge Meadows Hospital Auxiliary. They contributed over $30,000 to purchase this equipment,” for the hospital’s sensory room, Koo said.

He added, though, that the therapy is not for everyone.

People respond differently to stimuli.

For instance, some people find a weighted blanket to be suffocating, while others find it reassuring, Koo said.

He added that some patients have suffered so much trauma, they have a constant feeling of edginess.

“That kind of tension really comes down when you go through with someone who’s trained and supporting you, in that kind of environment.”

Koo said the sensory room isn’t an exercise program, although the latter also helps reduce anxiety and depression.

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Sensory room opened in psychiatric unit at Ridge Meadows Hospital. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

Sensory room opened in psychiatric unit at Ridge Meadows Hospital. (Phil Melnychuk/THE NEWS)

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