How art is inspiring better health and wellbeing

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Whether it’s checking out a new gallery or signing up for a painting class, engaging with the arts has the power to make us feel incredible. Studies have also shown a clear link between art and mental health. Research by UCL concluded that looking at art triggers the same euphoric psychological effect as romantic love, while you can also elevate your mood by creating your own works of art.

Many of us simply see the arts as a hobby, or an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but for others, art is helping improve their mental health and wellbeing. There’s a huge body of research that suggests art has the ability to make people feel happier and reduce symptoms of conditions like depression and anxiety, which is why so many modern organizations are using it to enhance people’s lives. As well as being offered the tools and space required to develop a beneficial new skill, many of these schemes also allow people to meet and socialize with others, and thereby increase connectivity amidst an increasingly isolated society.

Paintings in hospitals are boosting patient satisfaction

Hospitals are often uncomfortable places to be and patients with the most serious illnesses may feel particularly distressed and upset during a long stretch in a ward. However, according to academics at Penn State College of Medicine, artwork can have a positive effect on patient satisfaction. The researchers studied 186 hospitalized cancer patients—74 were given a painting of their choice to hang in their rooms, 69 received a randomly assigned painting, and the remaining 43 had a whiteboard instead. The patients’ anxiety, mood, depression, and sense of control were then measured, and their pain levels, quality of life, length of stay, and perceptions of the hospital environment all recorded. At the end of the experiment, the team found that the two artwork groups perceived their environment more positively than those with a whiteboard.

Though these are recent findings, this notion was pioneered by the team at Paintings in Hospitals since 1959, when founder Sheridan Russell fixed an artwork to the wall of a busy hospital corridor. The UK charity has spent years using world-class art to humanize clinical environments, hoping this will inspire hope and boost wellbeing amongst patients. Paintings in Hospitals’ impressive collection of over 3,800 artworks is the only art foundation specifically dedicated to inspiring better health and wellbeing. Their collection containing pieces from famous artists like Andy Warhol and Quentin Blake, in addition to impressive works by Ian Davenport, Sir Anthony Gormley, and Maggi Hambling, who are also patrons for the charity. Last year, Paintings in Hospitals donated 251 works of art to 178 care organizations, reaching at least two million people, including patients, service users, carers, and the general public.

Art participation

As well as appreciating the art of others, there is evidence to suggest creating art also has a positive impact on overall mental health. Leading British arts and mental health charity Arts and Minds runs weekly workshops for people suffering from depression, stress, or anxiety, and a post-workshop evaluation of participants in 2017 revealed a 71% decrease in feelings of anxiety and a 73% fall in depression. Furthermore, over three quarters reported an increased sense of wellbeing and 69% felt more socially included.

Additional studies conducted in countries including the USA and Sweden also support this link between active creativity and improved wellbeing. It’s therefore no surprise that a number of care homes, GP surgeries, hospitals, and other community settings, provide creative outlets to those with both physical and mental health issues.

For example, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London runs a participatory programme called GOSH Arts, which attracted 12,888 participants last year. One of the organization’s most recent schemes, The Blue Bag Exchange Project, was aided by resident artist Marysa Dowling and encouraged children to make and exchange gifts using recycled blue bags—a medium often used in Marysa’s own work. And every October, Great Ormond Street Hospital hosts Family Arts Week, an opportunity for patients’ siblings to also enjoy artistic events and workshops around the hospital.

Meanwhile, Age Cymru’s cARTrefu organization has worked with over 20% of care homes in Wales since 2015, recruiting professional artists to helm residencies which introduce elderly residents to artforms and activities they may never have tried before. The establishment also provides care home staff with simple but effective activity packs, allowing them to organize their own art participation schemes with residents. As well as enabling the elderly to engage with high-quality art experiences, cARTrefu hope to nurture a greater appreciation of the arts among care home staff.

Doctors are prescribing art to patients

The positive relationship between art and mental health has prompted many medical practitioners to incorporate the arts into their prescriptions. A £4.5 million fund in England was set up to support doctors in prescribing arts activities instead of anti-depressants, aimed particularly at patients that are socially isolated, dealing with the impact of health inequalities, or have complex needs. This initiative coincided with a study commissioned by Aesop, which revealed that two-thirds of GPs believe engagement with the arts could significantly contribute to the prevention of ill health. The results also found that 44% of GPs agreed arts-based interventions represented a cost-effective means of primary care.  

A similar policy has also been introduced in Canada, which allows doctors in Montreal to give patients free access to the nearby Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. This initiative is the first of its kind in the world to use art to assist a patient’s current treatment plan, whilst in the US, nearly half of all healthcare institutions include art in their programming.

Researchers at the University of Gloucestershire found that a course of arts-on-prescription can provide a significant improvement in overall wellbeing. Arts-on-prescription consists of community-based schemes led by local artists, who teach patients how to draw or paint, amongst other creative skills. These interventions are also unique as participants do not need to reveal the medical diagnosis that brought them there.
Those suffering from mental health problems may also engage in art therapy—psychological treatments which use a patient’s specific medical needs to tailor a course of arts-based activities within a therapeutic environment. With no prior knowledge or skill required, these sessions are conducted by a licensed therapist and can focus on an individual or take place in a group setting. The benefits of art therapy include a boost in self-expression, the ability to recognize growth and inner strength, and an opportunity for people to come to terms with physical illness.  

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