About arts and health

In recent years, a growing body of evidence has been compiled exploring the potential of the arts to impact on health and wellbeing in a variety of social contexts, to counter inequalities and increase engagement. Participation in the arts and access to a range of arts opportunities can dramatically improve health outcomes and increase wellbeing. Supplementing medicine and care, the arts can improve the health of people who experience mental or physical health problems. Engaging in the arts can promote prevention of disease and build wellbeing.  Increasingly, this notion has gathered traction among policy makers and the medical establishment, as well as among patients, artists and the wider community.  The benefits which can be derived from participation and engagement with artistic activities are increasingly being seen beyond traditional settings, and their role in supporting communities and individuals who would otherwise be excluded is increasingly recognised. 

Participatory arts and crafts activities in community and healthcare settings provide opportunities for people to engage with each other and their own creativity directly improving their sense of wellbeing. The arts can reduce stress and increase social engagement as well as provide opportunities for self-expression.


The arts, creativity and wellbeing in London

London’s diversity, size and international standing create a unique context for exploring the scope of the arts to influence wellbeing. The disparity in life expectancy between one borough and its neighbour; the density of population; public health challenges; and crime are examples of specific areas in which the arts can change the lives of Londoners. By bringing together the arts, creativity and wellbeing, the horizon for artists is broadened and the lives of London’s diverse population are enriched.


Arts and health nationally

The next decade will witness the greatest changes to the NHS since its creation: from GP commissioning, the new climate around patient choice and the personalisation agenda to the impact of an ageing population.  These challenges are resulting in a radical re-evaluation of health funding and changes to the priorities of the NHS. 

Money spent by the health sector on arts has risen steadily and evidence of effectiveness is becoming both more available and more understood, but the funding and opportunities remain inaccessible to most artists and commissioners are often not aware of the full extent of the diversity and richness of artistic practice which could impact on patients’ health.

The impact of creative activities in specific community settings is increasingly appreciated by policy makers across all areas of government.  The arts are being utilised in prisons, education, and workplaces to unlock the creative talents of everyone.  In the context of health and social care the role of creativity is apparent beyond the NHS and beyond specific therapeutic or economic impacts, providing creative outlets for patients, staff and the public.  As this develops in the coming years,  opportunities will arise for the use of the arts in a wider range of contexts.

The modern NHS, its patients, staff and clinicians are beginning to embrace the arts as having a central role to play in the wellbeing and health of individuals, communities and society as a whole. (see the BMA’s recent report on the psychological and social needs of patients here). Arts Council England noted in its 2010 strategic framework, “The arts may reach a new tipping point in terms of their contribution to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.”

Arts and health policy

In 2007, the Department of Health published a prospectus looking at the role the arts can play in health.  Click here to download or view the prospectus, and the review on which it was based.

Its principle findings were that:

  • arts and health are, and should be firmly recognised as being, integral to health, healthcare provision and healthcare environments, including supporting staff
  • arts and health initiatives are delivering real and measurable benefits across a wide range of priority areas for health, and can enable the Department and NHS to contribute to key wider Government initiatives
  • there is a wealth of good practice and a substantial evidence base
  • the Department of Health has an important leadership role to play in creating an environment in which arts and health can prosper by promoting, developing and supporting arts and health
  • the Department should make a clear statement on the value of arts and health, build partnerships and publish a Prospectus for arts in health in collaboration with other key contributors.

The prospectus concluded:

 “Arts Council England, the Department of Health and many leading healthcare experts firmly believe that the arts have an important part to play in improving the health and wellbeing of people in many ways,”

At the end of 2008, The Department of Health established a new working group to look at the role the arts can play in health. This stemmed from the (then) Secretary of State for Health Alan Johnson who, in a speech in September 2008, declared that “hospitals and other care settings that pay close attention to the overall physical environment for patients achieve real improvements in the health of patients… Access and participation in the arts are an essential part of our everyday wellbeing and quality of life.” His speech followed a debate in the House of Lords, earlier that year looking at the role of the arts in health. This new working group is currently “considering how arts and health can be included more regularly in [the Department of Health’s] policies, and whether systems and incentives should be adapted to reflect the contribution of arts and health.


The future for arts and health

This opportunity is too great for us to leave to chance. It is also too important to not take seriously. Arts practitioners working in health contexts consistently report those eureka moments when people, previously unexposed to the arts, experience something new, something magical something life-enhancing. However, dig deeper and there are negative experiences too –children put off music by the amateur violinist on the children’s ward, the older person frustrated by the untrained workshop facilitator, the person whose illness, isolation or depression is made worse, not better, by poor quality environments or ill thought-out approaches to “arts and health”. Quality is improving but it still has a journey to take. Expertise and experience are crucial in guiding this, in supporting artists and developing the role the arts can play in improving wellbeing.

LAHF will continue to work strategically to create a climate where all of society can be engaged in the practice and enjoyment of the arts – for the benefit of their health and the health of their communities.