Health + Wellbeing

The Youth Mental Health Center of the Future

Redesigning the help-seeking experience to feel welcoming and free of judgment, regardless of where young people are in their journey.

As of August 2018, Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services—in collaboration with the Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing—secured state approval to use $15 million to open two integrated youth mental health clinics. But they’re probably not what you’re picturing.

Nearly half of all lifetime mental illness cases in the U.S. begin by age 14, yet 79% of the youth in need of care don’t access it. Support is either not easy to find or not available to all.

The therapist immediately jumped to solutions, without taking the time to understand or relate to me. I felt like I was being talked down to.

Teen Girl, San Jose, CA

When you’re on the cusp of adulthood, asking for help means admitting you’re still not adult enough to do it all—it reveals a vulnerability too closely associated with still being a kid, especially when the perception is that your peers are tackling everything on their own. This lack of early emotional support not only has severe and costly repercussions; it also makes the stigma surrounding treatment even more pronounced.

A youth advisory group of 27 teenagers contributed to every step of the design process.

Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences wants to redefine the threshold for seeking care, making it easy for youth to walk in and tackle challenges, big or small. They engaged IDEO​.org to design a brand and space that would alleviate stigma and meet youth where they are. The team spent a lot of time co-designing with 16-to-25 year olds. A youth advisory group of 27 teenagers contributed to every step of the process—from sharing about their lives to determining what the physical spaces would look like.

Allcove’s logo, a curved shape with small inlets, represents just that—a place to retreat with openness to leave when you want to.

So, what does it feel like to be 16-years old? Parents expect support at home; siblings demand attention; teachers insist on excellence; friends want constant online engagement—amassed, these expectations feel unreasonable, an undercurrent of tension in their lives. But it’s scary to admit they need outside help. What if it didn’t have to feel formal? How might we create a non-judgmental space where teens can press pause and seek help?

IDEO​.org designed allcove” spaces to speak to whatever someone’s me time” might look like. Rich color gradients remind youth that emotions exist in different hues and spectrums; and a variety of micro-environments—ranging from open, shielded, and private—provide youth the freedom to choose between socializing, being alone, or seeking counseling.

Everything about the brand, from the visual language to the name, reinforces this duality of alone but not alone. Its logo, a curved shape with small inlets, represents just that—a place to retreat with openness to leave when you want to. The first syllable of the name (all) communicates inclusivity and togetherness. While the second syllable, cove, is by definition a space surrounded by protection that can take many forms.

An experience playbook outlines the spatial cues and human interactions that help youth wayfind at key moments in their journey. For example, a transition wall at the entrance provides a pause as they leave behind the chaos from outside. The team learned that the youth wanted to be able to choose when to interact with staff and when to figure things out on their own—a digital orientation takes them through physical environment and general offerings while in the space or before they even arrive.

I want a place to go when I’m in a funk, but still want to be around people; a space with no expectations.

Community youth organizer, San Francisco, CA

When you enter into an allcove space, you won’t find a waiting room or anything clinical looking—even the counseling rooms flow into the curvy architecture of the space. Here, youth can seek guidance, have a supportive conversation, or connect to the support they need. 

The first allcove centers are in the process of being built and are designed to serve at least 1,000 young people in Santa Clara County in their first year. As more centers develop around the nation, core architectural and visual elements will remain the same. But the hope is that local communities will add their own color to the different moments in the experience.

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