A new report from UCL (University College of London) reveals the incredible impact of the arts on health. The findings, based on decades of research, show that taking part in the arts and creative expression is linked to better mental health, a lower risk of dementia and even a longer life.
Since 2017, the psychobiology group at UCL (University college of London) www.sbbreasearch.org, part of the Behavioural Science and Health research department, has published over 70 academic papers linking participation in the arts and creative expression to people's well-being, at various stages of life.
In March 2023, the Full report: The Impact of the Arts on Population Health, summarises the research work of the UCL team, one of the most active internationally, and finds new evidence on the link between the arts and health. The arts promote more positive social and health behaviours in children and young people, better mental health and lower risk of depression in adulthood, a reduced risk of dementia in old age, lower levels of chronic pain and frailty, and even longer lifespans.
The results come from longitudinal, cohort studies carried out by UCL in the UK and the US, with research paths made possible by close partnership with the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida and various levels of investment between public and private stakeholders. These include the Art Council England and the National Endowment for the Arts, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Pabst Steinmetz Foundation.
The methodologies employed tracked the activities and health of a large number of people over the course of their lives, showing that the positive relationship persists even when factors like demographics, socio-economic position and other health conditions are taken into account.
The report is divided into four parts:
- Children and young people - Evidence brief: Arts and Young Peoples’ Health and Behaviours
- Mental health - Evidence brief: Arts and Mental Health in Adulthood
- Healthy Ageing - Evidence brief: Arts and Healthy Ageing
- Accessibility - Evidence brief: Access to the arts for public health.
Policy recommendations for promoting participation in the arts as a cornerstone of public
There are plenty of recommendations for policy makers and social investors to reinforce investment strategies for the Arts and Health with:
- Educational policies that introduce the arts from an early age and involve families in school curricula, to develop the potential of individuals and the physical and mental health of young people.
- Health promotion, with prevention programmes to promote effective emotion regulation strategies through the arts, improving coping skills and increasing resiliency.
- Bringing the arts into the workplace in a period of history of great transformation.
- Clinical care linked to community care, including participation in arts together with treatment pathways, starting with chronic disease management.
Why is all this important?
We know that health is not equal, as is health literacy - the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information and access services in an aware way. This is also true of access to the arts.
As Dr. Daisy Fancourt, the head of the UCL team responsible for the WHO report 67/2029, now a real milestone, says:
“The arts play a unique and important role, they help us stay healthy and live longer, but not everyone benefits from them as they should. We therefore urge policy makers, funders, health and arts organisations to invest in more equitable and higher quality opportunities for all, as a pillar of public health”.
These results can support policymakers, like social investors, in long-term investment (together with arts and social organisations) to 'reinvent' the role of the arts in the quality of society. And because of the ongoing serious consequences of the pandemic on health, especially on mental health - in particular that of the vulnerable –investment is needed in this new hybrid field of study, practice and policy, to scale up and act quickly, with combined action from the sectors most directly involved, namely health, social policy and education.
Strong policy signals from Europe
The EU is leading the way and offering support in an increasingly transversal manner, with policies and investments linking the arts to health and well-being.
In 2018, the European Commission's New European Agenda for Culture introduced a highly innovative principle, pointing to so-called cultural crossovers as the pillars of policies in coming decades, i.e. the need to create or strengthen systematic and systemic relationships between the arts and other, once poorly interconnected, areas of policy - primarily health - to effectively address new social changes. It was a strategic acknowledgement of past experience, but at the same time a clear indication of forward-looking investment.
To support this direction, the EC Directorate-General for Culture and Education launched the Preparatory Action 'Culture for Health' in 2021 to identify the best ways to support projects combining the arts and health that will be the focus of EU planning from 2024 onwards. These include the Horizon Programme's work plan for Cluster 2 on Cultural Heritage, which will support research and experimental projects involving the arts and health. In the same vein, the Culture4Health research programme, an EU preparatory action entitled “Bottom-up Policy Development for Culture and Well-being” funded by the Commission, will end in June. C4H aims to promote the exchange of knowledge, experiences and success stories across the EU related to the role of the arts in wellbeing and health, map the most important current practices, implement some small-scale pilot projects on the ground and provide a series of policy recommendations.
The project gathered evidence from over 300 scientific studies on the contribution taking part in the arts makes to improved health and well-being. It also produced a database of initiatives on the arts, health and wellbeing, with over 700 projects, searchable by country, beneficiaries, and artistic fields. The mapping is still open for voluntary contributions and the first report was published in January 2023.
The Work Plan for Culture 2023-2026, with the “Culture and Health” intervention area under “Culture for People: Enhancing Cultural Participation and the Role of Cultures in Society” gives clear indications.
And to provide inspiration for EU programming opportunities and national and local policies, Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Education, Culture and Youth, catalogued the most important projects supported by EU funding in the last two years, at the end of 2022: Get inspired! Culture: a driver for health and wellbeing in the EU.
The examples collected in this European Commission publication help document how the alliance between the arts and health has moved beyond the stage of mere experimentation and shows, at least in some areas, maturity and solidity. However, there needs to be a strong conviction on the part of social, health and arts policy makers to recognise this new approach as effectively feasible and to be regulated in the health sector.
So, for the time being, they are still a patchwork of initiatives that depend to a great extent on the goodwill of a few social stakeholders.