How Creativity on Prescription Can Improve Mental and Physical Health

Prescribing art and social connection has documented effects on health and diseases like dementia
By Hilary Bungay, Anglia Ruskin University
September 22, 2018 Updated: September 22, 2018

The idea of prescribing social and artistic activity may seem new, but it is actually more than 10 years since United Kingdom government policy first sought to link patients with non-medical support in the community.

In the past couple of years, however, calls for the arts to be a core component of social prescribing in the U.K. have been growing. A recent report by Arts Council Wales, for example, has backed the idea. And last summer an all-party parliamentary group for clinical commissioning groups, as well as NHS trusts, and local authorities put forward recommendations to incorporate prescribing arts on prescription into their commissioning plans and redesign care pathways where appropriate.

At present there are a number of arts on prescription programs operating around the U.K.—encompassing all kinds of human creativity including seated dance, creative writing, forum theatre and object handling in museums. There is a growing body of evidence which shows that different arts being prescribed have a positive impact on a variety of health conditions. One recent review, for instance, reported ten key benefits for those involved in these kinds of schemes. They included self-esteem and confidence boosts, physical health improvements, better social connections, and the acquisition of new skills.

But why the arts? Social prescribing aims to address the social causes of ill health and give people the support they need, such as advice about benefits, employment, and housing. It can also include access to exercise, volunteering, and creative or artistic activities. So it may seem like an advice system might be just as useful, but prescribing specific arts activities can have some unique benefits.

Mental Health and Well Being

There is growing evidence that several different types of arts schemes are not only cost-effective, but can improve well being and have a positive impact on levels of anxiety and depression.

Arts in action. Kzenon/Shutterstock

Take singing, for example. Research has demonstrated that it can have a positive impact on mental health and well being. In fact, several studies undertaken with older people have found that community singing appears to have a significant effect on their quality of life—helping ameliorate the effects of anxiety and depression. In addition, findings from a recently published study have demonstrated that new mothers taking part in singing and music groups experience a faster reduction in post-natal depression symptoms than those in control groups.

As we age, we are at risk of experiencing loneliness and social isolation through loss of social networks, as well as facing new limitations as a result of decreasing physical health. The arts can create social connections and research has shown that participation in arts programs enables older people to get in touch with others and extend existing networks of support in their communities, helping to alleviate loneliness and isolation.

Our ongoing project, “Creative Journeys”, is looking at ways that the arts can help build social relationships in residential care homes. The study is due to finish in October 2018, but early indications are that the arts activities increase social interactions between residents, and between residents and staff with improved mood and well being as a result.

Not only does evidence suggest participation in the arts may delay the onset of dementia, but also that it can affect cognitive functioning through stimulating memories and attention. In addition, art making can improve the mood, confidence, and social engagement of people living with dementia and has been shown to enhance the relationship between caregivers and the people they are caring for.

Long-Term Conditions

Arts activities are also effective alongside treatment of a number of long-term conditions. Music, singing, and visual arts can all improve confidence and the quality of life of people with stroke, for example. People living with Parkinson’s disease who take part in group singing and dance experience improvements in their voice and movements too.

In addition, the British Lung Foundation supports singing groups for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—and research has indicated that there are improvements in lung function and quality of life for people who join “singing for breathing” groups.

Whether it is traditional art lessons, joining a community singing group, or any other creative activity, the evidence is clear: participating in these activities has a positive impact on health and well being.

Putting arts on social prescriptions is a start, but we do still need to look at the relative strengths and cost-effectiveness of implementing them across the U.K. Only then can we truly start to develop proper treatment programs for different conditions.

Hilary Bungay is a reader in health services research at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. This article was originally published on The Conversation