Here at Breathe, we believe that the arts offer people an powerful and effective way for people to find relief and fulfilment, especially when facing health challenges. It’s why we do what we do.
Therefore, here at Breathe HQ we have been following three recent policy developments in the UK with interest:
- The release of the NHS Long Term Plan
- The announcement of NHS England’s plan to recruit 1,000 ‘Link Workers’ to facilitate social prescribing to arts & wellbeing activities from GPs
- The Arts Council England’s 2020-2030 strategy consultation
These things may appear at first to have little relationship to each other, but we believe they are all intimately connected. The NHS Long Term Plan shows the government’s commitment to helping people stay well and managing health conditions outside the hospital environment. This ties in perfectly with the Link Worker’s work to facilitate non-medical community participation, and with the Arts Council England’s increased focus on widening access to arts so that people take part in arts activities in their communities from a young age.
All of this we welcome, support and contribute to. Indeed, as a Strategic Alliance Member of the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance, we have fed directly into the Arts Council’s new strategy, re-stating the importance of equal access to arts in healthcare settings and communities for everyone. We also work closely with staff at Guys & St Thomas’ hospitals to develop arts projects alongside them, which meet clinical as well as artistic aims. Our ‘Breathing Bodies’ project is a great example of this, in which we work with physiotherapists to co-design courses of strength and balance classes, using dance to help stimulate and enhance movement. As well as the physical benefits the dance work offers emotional connection and enjoyment for older people at risk of falls, who are often also rather lonely.
Starting to see health, community and happiness as interconnected is really important; it shows that policy makers share the view that arts organisations hold on peoples’ holistic, lifelong needs. If we are happier, we are healthier, and the evidence is there. For example, research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Our happiness may be linked to many things: social interaction, productivity, fulfilment, to name but a few. The arts connect people, make them do something, something that they choose to do for themselves and about which they feel good. Creativity fulfils people, and does so multi-dimensionally. Indeed, the evidence is firmly there now to show participation in the arts makes us healthier.
Our ‘Melodies for Mums’ singing group, for women at risk of postnatal depression, speaks straight to the heart of the NHS’s long-term plan. It gives quite isolated women a place to go, outside the healthcare setting, with people to see and talk to and something creative and enjoyable to do. The research suggests this is more effective for their mental health than simply attending a play group or, as often happens, accessing no support at all. We can also see here how effective services can be if they happen early – we proactively recruit from health centres, before women perhaps feel low enough to go to their GPs.
The painter Ad Reinhardt has once said “Art is art. Everything else is everything else,” so I here want to add a word of caution that takes this sentiment literally. As much as the arts can – and does – add to the healthcare system in beautiful and significant ways, and may even revolutionise it (see our Breathe Magic programme for a great example), there are some things it cannot do. Housing, education, welfare, nutrition – these are also important to health and happiness. If these are lacking, the arts may simply be a sticking plaster. So therefore, we fully support and welcome the social prescribing movement, so long as it meaningfully integrates into provision of other services rather than replaces or deters from them.
To that end, we look forward to continuing to work alongside the NHS, Arts Council England and the wider Arts in Health networks, contributing our knowledge and expertise to this new era of social prescribing and holistic care. I believe that reminding ourselves of our place within the much wider ecosystem of health then means we arts organisations can more effectively advocate for the life-changing impact that moments of creativity can have on people. Here is our young magician Ben’s Mum explaining this better than I ever could:
“I wonder if you can imagine how proud I am of Ben? It leaves me quite speechless. Only two weeks before magic camp Ben was crying with his teacher because he couldn’t join in with the rest of the children when they were doing assembly. That made me feel really sad… and Ben too. But look at him now, doing magic in front of 500 people! It amazes me! At age 7 Ben arrived at camp with his hand fisted; after 3 days the thumb started to move to the side, and I really did see that! Then of course today he was able to open his hand right out, and that is the magic.”