arts and health Conference Report

The arts help foster healthy nations: EU Social Inclusion Group meet in Brussels

This post outlines my contribution and wider context of the EU’s Ministry of Education and Culture Social Inclusion group two-day session in Brussels. Following the launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s Creative Health report in July, momentum has continued to gather in the arts and health field with October’s UK Parliamentary debate in Westminster.

The Social Inclusion group of representatives from each member state invited me to ‘make the case’ for the role of the arts and culture in promoting social inclusion. I went to Brussels determined to usefully convey some of the evidence and outcomes featured in the Creative Health report – and those found during my Churchill Fellowship 2017 – to the advisory group. For me, the aspiration towards social inclusion has national health and well-being in mind, as social exclusion, inequalities, and loneliness are major predictors of poor health outcomes.

If health is about adaptation, understanding and acceptance, then the arts may be more potent than anything medicine has to offer.”
2002, Richard Smith, Editor of British Medical Journal

‘The Arts’: Does the Type of Art Matter?

The Norwegian representative wondered about the effects of different kinds of art. I found this a very interesting question – does the kind of art matter?

While there are surely differences, the answer this context is, broadly  – no, not really!

Process Not Outcome

The first thing we should consider is the needs and preferences of the person engaging in, or making, art. Of course, the sentiment ‘different strokes for different folks’ applies – and the arts have highly individual effects. Some people champion poetry, others painting, and exploring this requires another post. But, regardless of the chosen medium, the processes that deliver the benefits that people report share common characteristics.

People who take part in qualitative research on the arts and health report that the arts – whether making or viewing – can be utilised as vast, assorted and nuanced vehicles that can travel at your own pace, to your tastes and preferences, within your limits or pushing your limits, to provide authentic routes towards healing processes.

Among the factors that lead to improvements in wellbeing are:
–  Immediate effects, such as relaxation, absorption, and flow, a state which when experienced regularly, has been shown to protect mental health.
– The arts also promote agency, achievement and pride.
– Expression and communication are frequently reported to result from engaging in the arts.  People find they need not rely on language to experience and understand themselves, others, and experiences. This can be vital to people who experience trauma and illness, for example, and for people to find their voice.
– Social benefits are also commonly reported as a result of engaging with the arts.
– Participants report a shift in self-perception toward a more positive and recovered sense of self, using the arts as tools to navigate various processes.

Orange concentrics
Model of the findings from my research, a literature review:  “Engaging with art as part of mental health recovery processes: a metasynthesis of 27 studies” Taylor, Lobban & Fletcher, at Lancaster University, currently under review.

The Arts and Culture

In her book, Arts in Health, Dr Daisy Fancourt outlines the probable ways in which the arts have been used historically. She describes their simultaneous use, in tandem as a rich layered tapestry, with no distinction between the different forms.

The principles that underlie all or most forms of creativity and art-making and contribute to wellbeing are the same.

The EU group discussion of this point drew on some key findings with regards to group drumming. Evidence suggests that drumming, with its rhythmic, ritualistic and soothing properties, carries physiological benefits. Our heart rates decrease, breathing becomes deeper and more rhythmic, and our stress response is inhibited.  There are similar physiological effects of singing and you can read more about music in a previous post.

We also find it easier to relate to those we sing with, signalling the potential when aiming to improve social inclusion. People report feeling connected to those around them following group singing, which hints at some of the difficulties with measuring the impact of the more transformative properties of the arts. While some physiological effects can be measured, many people feel that engaging in music and the arts confers less tangible, mystical or metaphysical effects. Undoubtedly, understanding and measuring these creates serious methodological challenges. The BBC has a current series BBC Choral History that explores the ancient and remarkable effects of singing.

Repeatedly we find that it’s process and not outcome that confers the benefits people commonly report. There are obviously many topics, research, and issues to discuss following this meeting and future posts will continue this thread.

My fitting reward after the meeting was a great funk jam at Bonnefoi (‘By Chance’), a late night music bar in central Brussels

Selected Evidence

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt drafted the recent Creative Health report and in 2014 published Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship Between Arts Engagement and HealthThis document reviews data from the Nordic countries following their long-term collection of indicators of engaging with the arts, and health outcomes.

Australian researchers this year examined the ‘dose-response’ effects of the arts and report evidence of an arts-mental health relationship among 700 people, a very healthy sample size. Those who engaged in 100 or more hours/year of arts engagement (i.e. two or more hours/week) reported significantly better mental well-being than other levels of engagement.

The three key messages from Creative Health report are that the arts can:
Help keep us well, aid recovery, and support longer lives better lived
Help meet major challenges facing health and social care
Save money in the health service and social care

Further Resources

I'm a British clinical psychologist with a research background. I manage the Greater Manchester i-THRIVE Arts, Culture and Mental Health Programme, part of the national transformation of children's services. I also have an NHS clinical role in Lancaster and Morecambe working with children, young people and families (CAMHS). I began this blog in 2017 to record a WCMT Travelling Fellowship, from a research role at Arts for Health, Manchester Metropolitan University. I began clinical psychology training (DCLinPsy, Lancaster) in 2010, and studied the role of creativity in bipolar disorder, because of the known links, and partly due to my own experiences of creatively managing extremes of mood in adolescence and throughout my 20s. I have worked in several university psychology research departments including Manchester University in suicide prevention, the Spectrum Centre for Mental Health Research at Lancaster University (notable for service user expertise), and on the Dementia & Imagination research programme.

1 comment on “The arts help foster healthy nations: EU Social Inclusion Group meet in Brussels

  1. Pingback: Arts for Health Austria Launches with ‘Dance: New Moves in Healthcare’ – Art Thou Well

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: