A cluster of thoughts on the contested role of art in health
Writing: Paola Valentina
Illustration: Paola Valentina
CW: This article mentions mental illness, trauma and sexual violence.
It is undeniable that art in all its forms serves as a mechanism for human expression, yet for some, whether one should acknowledge the place of the arts in health and wellbeing remains contestable.
Engaging in artistic activities - singing, dancing, gardening, painting - is inherently valuable in this regard through the perspective of the artist. It is not a ground-breaking discovery that creating art is a pleasurable activity, and partaking in artistic endeavours elicits positive emotions, resulting in happiness and relaxation (of course, this also depends on the context and subject-matter). As an unfortunate side effect of neoliberal structures, however, the value an artist places upon their artistic actions does not suffice as proof. This makes it increasingly important to look towards the continuously growing arsenal of works which show that, indeed, investing in artistic activities is extremely valuable to both the community and the individual.
Julia Kellman, a Professor at the University of Illinois and who has published extensive work on the matter, has written in her most recent publication that, “the visual arts provide a unique means by which one can create both narrative meaning and personal sense from the most deeply felt, interior aspects of their life; the visual arts enable one to create continuity in life experiences [and] give one an opportunity to share their stories with others”. She alludes towards the self-reflective characteristic of artistic actions, a unique quality of this form of expression, which cannot be found through other means. Artistic activities can allow one to reconfigure the world as well as subjective or personal experiences in a linear or non sequitur fashion. Nevertheless, the question still stands: is there any value in this distinctive way in which individuals can create both meaning and purpose from these “most deeply felt”, innermost aspects of their lives? Does participating in “the arts” provide a tangible change in a human being?
Finding an answer has proved difficult, as empirically measuring the effectiveness of creative activities in improving wellbeing is, predictably, not so straight-forward. As a starting point, we can focus on art therapy. A 2018 study conducted by the Institute for Safety Compensation and Recovery Research (ISCRR) found that “there is moderate evidence that art therapy can significantly reduce depression and anxiety symptoms associated with psychological trauma”, based on four primary and one systematic review study, but that there still, unsurprisingly, exists “very limited evidence that art therapy can significantly reduce depression symptoms for individuals with physical trauma, based on one study”.
Yet, it is undeniable that there is a positive effect to finding an outlet for restrained emotions. Dr Nina Burrowes, psychologist and founder of the Consent Collective, affirms how emotional trauma can indeed materialise into physical ailments, and recently spoke about the role of art in healing at the University of Edinburgh. She described art as a space to “[try] to find form and sense of meaning in an experience when a word format cannot be used, where emotions are heard and feel safe”, giving art a “big role to play in healing” specifically speaking of victims of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. She
also posited the idea of art being utilised not just by the artist in need of mental health support, but as a tool that others may use to aid their healing process. Better collaboration between art makers and academics or even activists could result in better understood and spread messages, commenting that “art is the perfect form in which one can draw attention to something that is absolutely in front of our eyes”, yet not quite seen.
Currently, the NHS provides art therapy services. Art therapy took root in the West after World War II, and the profession itself is very much in existence, alive, and well - and for good reason. Art therapists “use art as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing”, and predominantly work with those who are emotionally damaged and repress trauma. In simple terms, those who undergo art therapy are encouraged to express their otherwise incommunicable innermost sentiments in hopes to mitigate troublesome behaviours and negative mental health patterns, among other things. Usually, art therapists work in collaboration with psychologists to provide a more holistic approach towards healing. Yet, the ease of access to art therapy sessions provided by the NHS are not by any means perfect. Mainly, there are issues regarding the general accessibility for demographics who are arguably more in need of the aforementioned programs. This deficit between people who would benefit from the services of the NHS and the real “demand”, per se, is telling of how a bigger investment should be made into the arts, with a main focus on accessibility to underfunded communities.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (APPGAHW), created in 2014, published a report titled ‘Creative Health’ in 2017. This report is a systemic investigation of the arts’ role in the eponymous journey towards better health and wellbeing. In it, there is a heavy emphasis on the role that the arts could have in preventing mild to moderate mental health issues from growing into more critical ones, especially in areas of poverty and in BAME communities, which experience a disproportionate amount of cases. Lord Darzi, Professor of Surgery in Imperial College London praised the report, saying that it “lays out a compelling case for [the UK’s] healthcare systems to better utilise the creative arts in supporting health and wellbeing outcomes, building on a growing body of evidence in mental health, end-of-life care and in supporting those living with long-term conditions.” The report is a recent example of an investigation conducted on the subject matter at such a grand scale. Social policies aimed at disseminating access to artistic activities or sites can boost morale in communities - and it is not far-fetched to suggest that putting them into effect may perhaps ameliorate and minimize the occurrence of more serious mental health problems, which are linked to social class and race. It is unrealistic to think that these policies alone would completely eradicate these issues, of course, and ridiculous to say that the absorption of all existing resources for the aim of distributing art and artistic schemes is all that our society needs. Nevertheless, one should recognise that the increased access to art and artistic activities have the potential to prevent the accumulation of more urgent mental health problems for a large variety of cases.
The University of Edinburgh’s Museum Services have taken note of this and are subsequently launching a new project named Prescribe Culture, which is aimed at providing free and easily accessible “cultural activities” to students with mild to moderate needs for mental health support. Particularly due to the problematic relationship of the University and those in need of adequate mental health support, this “pilot version” of the project is going to be a result of collaboration with several institutions, such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, to provide free workshops, lessons, and sessions in these “cultural activities”. Ruthanne Baxter, Museum Services Manager and project leader, disclosed that through talks with university GPs she learned that methods of aid prescribed to students in need of mental health support are mainly in the form of “drugs, talks, cognitive behavioural therapy, and some things like physiotherapy”. She relayed her belief that culture prescribing has the potential to help with or without another treatment in conjunction, and made clear that the Prescribe Culture team are trained only for the artistic aspects, adding that if one is prescribed medication for an illness, then they might be “a step too far for [their] abilities”. She reiterated that Prescribe Culture would most likely become a self-referral system, and showed, alongside her colleague, Laura Beattie, an infectious enthusiasm for the project. They are intending to be in constant discussion with students, as they will be the primary users of this pilot system. They have plans in mind, however, to later expand the project to non-students and other parts of Edinburgh such as Leith and Morningside.
Self-reflection, self-expression, relief, and release are important elements in the path towards wellbeing. Echoing Kellman in her 2004 article The Place of Art in Health Care, an Interdisciplinary View, although studies and macro analyses are helpful, the complexities of the single person cannot be overlooked. For some, taking their mind away from a long work day by watching a movie sometimes is enough, and listening to melancholic melodies quells exhaustion and despair. But for others, the best way to cope with unprecedented stress or trauma might be through other artistic means. An individual who is happy, healthy, and maintains wellbeing habits will be able to assist themselves and even their immediate communities far more than those who do not. We cannot ignore that this is the case with many individuals, and we must validate, understand, and support the efforts made for their healing.
“Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing.” All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/.
Goodwin, Karin. “New Culture Therapy Programme Begins Trial at Scots University.” The National, The National, 20 Jan. 2019, www.thenational.scot/news/17371040.new-culture-therapy-programmebegins-trial-at-scots-university/.
Halleröd, Björn, and Daniel Seldén. “The Multi-Dimensional Characteristics of Wellbeing: How Different Aspects of Wellbeing Interact and Do Not Interact with Each Other.” Social Indicators Research, vol. 113, no. 3, 2012, pp. 807–825., doi:10.1007/s11205-012-0115-8.
Kellman, Julia. “HIV, Art, and a Journey toward Healing: One Man's Story.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 39, no. 3, 2005, pp. 33–43., doi:10.1353/jae.2005.0025.
Kellman, Julia. “Telling Space and Making Stories: Art Narrative, and Place.” Art Education, vol. 51, no. 6, 1998, p. 35., doi:10.2307/3193750.