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Arts For Health

November 18, 2011

On 20th October, I (Mari) attended an Un-Conference hosted by Arts for Health. The Un-Conference – so named because it was a free, drop-in event – was divided into four sessions covering different aspects of using the arts to improve health and wellbeing. The topics were as follows:

– Changing Mindsets: the realities of artists engagement for mental health and wellbeing

– Understanding and Evidencing Transformative Practice

– Depression and Imagination

– Cultural Attendance and Public Mental Health

I attended the last two sessions.

Depression & Imagination was led by psychologist Dorothy Rowe, who talked us through her work and shared some of her opinions on the subject of how depression can affect imagination. She began by suggesting that “there is no such thing as Depression”, though there are people who are depressed, saying that it is not particular things that trouble us, but how we interpret these things that can trouble our minds. She went onto explain that practically everything around us is down to our own interpretation of the world, putting Reality itself into question by suggesting that our brains create a picture constructed from guesses based on previous experience, hence Reality is a mere figment of our imagination and everybody has a different Reality.

Art and artists thrive only because of this. If everyone saw the world in the same way, there would be no need to represent it. Art exists, according to Dorothy, because we each have our own way of seeing things and we are trying to convey what it is we see/experience and to share our personal Reality with others.

So how does depression relate to creativity?

Dorothy believes that what artists and people suffering depression have in common is sensitivity. People who are depressed are typically sensitive to what is going on around them and what other people think of them. This sensitivity, she claims, can be (mistakenly) interpreted as creativity – for what are artists if not sensitive to the world around them? There is a common belief that sensitivity and creativity emerge from the same source. Dorothy backed up this claim by citing Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf as examples of writers who actively held on to their depression because they believed their depression aided their creativity and that to combat their illness would be to suppress their creative flow. This is something I can sympathise with, as I find I am at my most creative when I am feeling sad. Like Brian from Channel 4 TV show Spaced, I am at my most creatively productive point when I am feeling a bit down, painting or writing to express myself and to get my negative thoughts onto paper and out of my mind.

This, then, is perhaps why art is considered to have therapeutic value and why schemes like Arts on Prescription are gaining reputation and support. Art therapy and community arts have, indeed, taken off in recent years, with everyone from small-scale arts organisations and charitable organisations to the largest national museums and galleries offering community arts as part of its services. How much of this is down to a genuine belief that art canand does help people and how much is down to a necessity to tick the funders’ boxes is anyone’s guess, but I do personally believe that igniting the spark of creativity does provide a flicker of hope for some people.

The following session on Cultural Attendance and Public Mental Health, led by Mark O’Neill of Glasgow Life and Leisa Gray of Manchester Art Gallery, seems to agree with the notion that culture and creativity can improve people’s states of mind. In his presentation, Mark outline three degrees of engagement for arts/cultural participation: art therapy, art activities and general attendance at universal services.

Leisa talked to us about the work she did with the young oncology unit at The Christie, where young cancer patients are receiving treatment. Leisa visited the hospital on a number of occasions and took with her some objects from the Mary Greg collection at Manchester Art Gallery. She told us how handling objects seemed to capture the patients’ and their parents’ imagination and opened them up to talk. Leisa believes that objects have the power to stimulate conversation and can encourage people to talk about memories, feelings and experiences without necessarily giving too much of yourself away. Object handling can take the focus off the speaker and allows the participant to make their stories as personal or as impersonal as they like, displacing feelings onto inanimate object or using the object as a way to trigger their imagination.

Whilst Leisa’s work with The Christie is a valuable example of how arts participation can help vulnerable groups, Mark points out that not everyone wants to or is able to actively participate in cultural activities. He suggests, however, that a simple activity such as going to the cinema can be equally beneficial to public mental health as Leisa’s more hands on approach. According to a longitudinal study carried out in Sweden, “analysis of the data revealed that attending the cinema, concerts or visits to museums and art exhibitions influences mortality in a positive direction…” (Boinkum B Konlaan, Lars O Bygren and Sven-Erik Johansson, ‘Visiting the cinema, concerts, museums or art exhibitions as determinant of survival: a Swedish fourteen-year cohort follow up’, Scandinavian Journal of Public Health 28, 2000). So there we have it, being culturally involved makes you live longer! This study, amongst others, provides evidence of measurable improvements in health and wellbeing for those who attend cultural events. Mark’s view is that the pathway to wellbeing is not what we do but how often we do it – like physical exercise, it doesn’t matter whether we go swimming or jogging, whether we read a book or go to a museum, what matters is that we do it regularly. Mark’s question now is how arts/cultural and health organisations should harness this apparent human need for cultural involvement and how to encourage the public to take regular mental exercise and include culture into their five-a-day.

The two sessions I attended led onto stimulating discussion with the arts, cultural and health professionals present on the day, but we’d like to continue this discussion on the digital sphere and hear your opinions too. Comments not only welcome but positively encouraged – it’ll make you live longer! 😉

Presentations, pictures and attendance lists from the Un-Conference are now available via the Greater Manchester Arts Health website:

To read Clive Parkinsons Arts for Health blog please go to

If you read down you will see a post relating to the conference and feedback received entitled “Brief thoughts on the Un-Conference.”


On a related subject, Nexus Art Café is currently welcoming submissions for an exhibition exploring the relationship between art and wellbeing. More info on their website:

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