Utilizing design thinking in addictions and mental health care puts a deliberate focus on the needs of the people you are trying to serve, helping to cut through any distractions that can stall innovation. When we deeply empathize with the people we are trying to support, real progress is possible.

Brooke spent the better part of her career in positions related to addictions and mental health. She has always been passionate about trying to find ways to improve care for those who need it. Brooke currently works at Overlap as Head, Care Systems & Experiences. Learn more about Brooke’s journey in her post, How A Social Worker Became A Human-Centred Designer.

As a clinician, I tried to improve care in whatever ways I could from my small place in the system.

I was fortunate enough to have leadership opportunities where I hoped to make even bigger improvements. I was able to make some small things better, but there were so many more ways in which I wasn’t able to make a meaningful impact.

Something is just incredibly hard about improving care in this big, complex system of addiction and mental health supports. There are always reasons why things ‘wouldn’t work, ‘couldn’t be done’ or why there ‘wasn’t enough funding’.

These responses are all valid. It would have been really easy to give up and stop trying, as any big change seemed almost impossible.  

The thing is, the situation isn’t hopeless. In fact, there are so many ways we could improve care if we are willing to deeply empathize with those we support, and co-design their care with them.

We just need different ways to go about it.


Design Thinking in Addictions and Mental Health Care

When I first started hearing about design thinking, I was skeptical that it would be any different. It seemed like the new ‘fad’ approach that would fade into the distance as others had before. Then we’d all go back to doing what we had been doing in the addictions and mental health system.

I quickly discovered how wrong I was.

Over the past few years, I have been actively using Design Thinking in addictions and mental health care. These experiences have helped me understand why Design Thinking is able to create change in addictions and mental health care where other approaches have not.

Design thinking is truly human-centred.

No really, it actually is. Design Thinking is fundamentally rooted in empathy. It requires you to:

  • Deeply understand the experiences of the people you’re trying to support or provide services to
  • Understand what they actually need
  • Design solutions to meet their needs

Focusing deliberately on the needs of the people you’re trying to serve helps you cut through the politics and noise that can stall the innovation of addictions and mental health care.

💡Continue reading: A Beginner’s Introduction to Design Thinking.


It’s about designing with, not for

Co-designing is one of the most powerful things I have experienced as a budding Design Thinker.

I used to believe the myth that “The people we serve can’t help us design services.” Actually, not only can they do it, they do it incredibly well! Some of the best ideas I’ve seen have come from folks who use care. As a side bonus, it also reminds them they are valued and gives them purpose. Win-win!


Design Thinking Focuses on Experience and Evidence

We need both experience and evidence if we want to provide the best services and supports possible.

If evidence-based care feels crappy, it won’t deliver better outcomes for people. As providers, most of us are well versed in evidence. We’re not always so good on the experience side.

Design Thinking gives us ways to understand people’s experience and improve it.


Design Thinking Mitigates Risk

Design Thinking is all about testing new ideas cheaply and quickly. It’s about failing early, often, and learning from those failures.

It requires that you test solutions with the people you’re trying to serve and incorporate their feedback. This allows you to make quick changes and refine your ideas as you go.

No one wants to spend a year implementing the wrong improvement before realizing it’s wrong!


Design Thinking has given me hope in a system that can sometimes feel hopeless

Is design thinking the magic fix? Absolutely not.

I don’t think there is one magic fix for a wicked problem like addictions or mental health care.

Design thinking gives us new ways to work together as partners with the folks we’re trying to serve. When we take advantage of the wisdom of those people, alongside the wisdom of service providers, better is absolutely possible.


You might also be interested in:

💡 75 Design Thinking Tools and Resources Explained

💡 How You Can Prepare For The Future Using Strategic Foresight