Making and Looking at Art May Reduce Depression and Doctor Visits, Report Suggests

Isaac Kaplan
Jul 25, 2017 6:50PM

Courtesy of APPGAHW.

We all know that art can change your life, but what about helping to save it? A new report has found evidence that the arts bring a wide range of health benefits, speeding medical recoveries and improving overall quality of life. Released last week in the U.K., “Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing” details numerous instances where the arts offered medical improvements for those of every age. That includes art therapy (which reduced agitation in those with dementia) and music (lullabies were seen to calm the heart, lessening the hospital stays for newborn children in neonatal intensive care).  

The nearly 200-page document is the result of two years of research, part of an investigation co-chaired by the Labour Party’s Alan Howarth and Conservative Ed Vaizey, both former arts ministers. It’s supplemented with over 300 testimonials from health professionals, patients, policy makers and artists—many available online.  

The report also estimates that arts-related health benefits can help save Britain’s cash-strapped National Health Service (NHS) money.  But while there is a “an expanding body of research and evaluation” supporting the evidence, a “culture change” is needed, given that both health and arts professionals tend to overlook art’s ability to make a meaningful impact on the NHS’s budget and patient outcomes.  

“We are calling for an informed and open-minded willingness to accept that the arts can make a significant contribution to addressing a number of the pressing issues faced by our health and social care systems,” writes Howarth in the report’s introduction.  

The document highlights potentially scalable case studies. For instance, in Gloucestershire—a county in the southwest of England—patients suffering from a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, were prescribed an eight-week art course. Operated by the charity Artlift, the program was found to reduce doctor consultation rates by 37% and hospital admissions by 27%, according to University of Gloucestershire analysis. This amounted to a £216 saving for the NHS per patient.

David Shrigley, Arts Bridge, for "Creative Health." Courtesy of APPGAHW.

David Shrigley, Culture Medicine, for "Creative Health." Courtesy of APPGAHW.


“Creative Health” also looks at the impact of participatory arts programs and art therapies on those who have experienced trauma or hardship. One study highlighted in the document followed two groups of young people with social and emotional difficulties, finding that those engaging with arts therapy showed outward signs of improvement and reported “clinically significant improvements in wellbeing, communication, concentration and focus, level of trust in others, team working and quality of life.”

“It is unfortunate, therefore, that children in special schools have less support for the arts than children in mainstream education,” notes the report. “We advocate that resources should be distributed according to need.” The report also found that while the impact of art therapies has been thoroughly documented, less scholarship exists around the medicinal impact of participatory arts more broadly.

The report also found additional evidence that the arts can help reduce anxiety and stress. In one case study, 46 mothers experiencing mental distress participated in a 10-week arts course alongside their children, after which they reported a reduction in anxiety and stress by 77 percent and 86 percent, respectively.

In looking at who participates in such programs, the report notes that “disadvantaged and marginalised groups” are “well represented within arts and health activities.” That said, there are grim reasons underlying the engagement: Those who access art and health programs are those in need of medical treatment, and people residing on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder are “disproportionately affected by ill health.”

The report concludes with 10 recommendations to facilitate “the change of thinking and practice that can open the way for the potential of the arts in health to be realised.” They include the creation of a national strategic center to promote policy and undertake additional research, with the suggestion that long-term studies focus further on filling the “gaps in evidence” regarding the connection between art and health.

The report also encourages the NHS and care groups to more fully incorporate the arts into their treatment plans where appropriate.

“We ask all those who believe in the value of the arts for health and wellbeing to join forces with us and speak up,” the authors conclude.

Isaac Kaplan