The Culture, Health and Wellbeing Conference 2017 comprised 3 days of talks, workshops and performances attended by over 400 health professionals, arts organisations and creative practitioners from 22 countries, hosted in Bristol’s vast City Hall.
The second of its kind organised by the south west’s National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the conference showcased inspirational practice, policy and the latest research, while discussing the role of arts and creativity in healing, care and wellbeing, encouraging learning between researchers, policy makers and arts professionals.
The arts can help keep us well and be part of creating a healthy society. We must acknowledge the powerful contribution they can make to our health and wellbeing.
Chief executive of Public Health England Duncan Selbie opened the proceedings, stressing in his introduction the particular importance of libraries and volunteering as part of arts integration within public health. The pressure on UK public health leaders was made only too clear, when as soon as his keynote was delivered he was unexpectedly whisked back to London.
At the first of the afternoon’s discussions in the distractingly-ornate council chamber, an international panel from a wide breadth of arts and health organisations introduced ‘The big debate: what’s the big picture on global health?’. Professor Virginia Murray, Georgia Baldon, Ian Thomas and Jill Sonke all spoke about the common challenge of effective evaluation in arts in health projects and the essential need for including evaluation within funding applications.
Healthcare needs to learn the language of the arts, and the arts needs to learn the language of healthcare.
Questions echoed from the audience about evidence-basing projects and funding, while considering the wider healthcare perspective including the demand for essential NHS services (one Hampshire NHS trust alone is short of 70 nurses). Poppy Jarman from Public Health England asked the room ‘where do we take the risks to innovate?’.
Jill Sonke, director of University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine, also noted in the session the shift in entrepreneurial perspective of artists making work because they love it, to producing work to be paid. She said that in order for arts and healthcare to coexist and develop most effectively 'healthcare needs to learn the language of the arts and the arts needs to learn the language of healthcare'.
That afternoon, in a session focussed on museums and wellbeing, Professor Helen Chatterjee, head of research and teaching at University College London’s (UCL's) culture and public engagement department, spoke about the 3-year research project ‘Museums on Prescription’ which was trialled at seven UK museums including the British Museum, UCL and Central Saint Martins.
The 10-week course involved creative writing and museum collections in a form of social prescribing offered to patients at risk of loneliness and isolation. It was found in the study that participants regarded museums as ‘socially-inclusive places that eased isolation’, ‘a place that people trusted’, as well as commonly being free to access in the UK.
Healthcare partners, NHS trusts and local social care groups, including Camden Carers Centre, helped identify hard to reach audiences suitable for the study. Similar studies elsewhere have seen a reduction in GP visits as a result. The research concludes in 2017, after which detailed findings from the project’s five researchers are expected to be published.
At Bristol’s Waterhouse venue that afternoon, Dr Louise Younie, Bart’s GP and lecturer, led a session on medical student learning and wellbeing. From her findings, she spoke about the need for a change in perspective on pressures facing young doctors in the NHS to the detriment of their mental health:
The commonly-used phrase seen often in the media, ‘resilience in NHS’, puts additional external pressure on clinical staff; it is perceived that if they are not resilient, they are weak. It can prevent students to ask for help.
Dr Younie also presented feedback from creative workshops facilitated in hospitals for medical students as an outlet for dealing with difficult patient experiences: ‘if art is good for patients, then why not medical students?’.
On the second morning, Dr Iona Heath, former president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, spoke of the medical, physical, emotional and moral literacy required alongside professional judgement in her keynote on cultural literacy and the care of the dying.
Captivating a room of 400 people through the powerful words of poets, writers and artists, Heath quoted Beckett, Berger, Goya, and Larkin alongside those of her own friends describing thoughts on honesty, dread, fear and loneliness: ‘amidst uncertainty, honesty really matters because it’s all you have’.
On 19 July 2017, the all-party parliamentary group for arts and wellbeing published a major report, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, presenting the findings of 2 years of research, evidence gathering and discussions with patients, health and social care professionals, artists and arts administrators, academics, policy makers and parliamentarians from both houses of parliament.
This timely report calls 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. The evidence presented shows how arts-based approaches can help people to stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and experience a better quality of life. The final key message highlights how arts interventions can save money and help staff in their work.