For decades, the psychiatric unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul has been something of an eyesore, hospital officials admit.

"A subpar environment," says one.

"Crummy," says another.

"Depressing," says a third.

That all changes on Monday, when mental health patients will start moving into a $36 million facility awash in warm colors, natural wood and open spaces.

The new mental health building, formally dedicated Friday, replaces an old inpatient facility originally built as a nurses' dormitory in the 1960s. The new facility will house 100 patients, only four more than the current facility, but it's nearly twice as large, officials said.

The project gave the hospital a chance to rethink how it cares for people in mental health crises -- from the food to the visiting hours, said Tom Geskermann, vice president of operations. For the first time, he said, Regions' psychiatric patients will have private rooms, private baths and a healing environment, complete with three-season porch and holistic "comfort room" to deal with stress. New patients, many of whom arrive by ambulance or police car, will be greeted with a warm meal and a warm blanket, he said.

"We really wanted to make it a safe place, warm, welcoming and empowering," said Dr. Michael Trangle, associate medical director for behavioral health at HealthPartners, which owns Regions.

Trangle said the old facility, with its dark, narrow hallways and group showers, was off-putting to patients and families alike. "You can give really good care in a crummy space, but it's still a crummy space," he said. In the new facility, he said, patients will have more space to exercise and meet privately with their families.

Also new is a hospital campaign to fight the stigma of mental illness, with a website called

Sue Abderholden, a mental health advocate, says stigma often keeps people suffering longer than necessary. "People live with their symptoms an average of 10 years before seeking help," said Abderholden, executive director of NAMI-Minnesota, who served on an advisory panel for the new hospital. The hope, she said, is that with facilities like this, "they won't be afraid to come back."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384