Recognising the value of the arts: calling for strategies and action to support health challenges



Picture of Katey Warran
Katey Warran

Research Fellow in the Social Biobehavioural Research Group at University College London and Deputy Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Arts & Health

Picture of Nils Fietje
Nils Fietje

Research Officer at the WHO Regional Office for Europe

Picture of Kornelia Kiss
Kornelia Kiss

Projects and Operations Director at Culture Action Europe

Chronic health conditions, mental health problems and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are increasingly recognised as the major health problems facing developed countries today. And these conditions are also interrelated. Moreover, our increasing understanding of the social determinants of health shows that social environments, societal structures and lifestyles all contribute to health experiences.

In our time of ‘permacrisis’ and uncertainty, now more than ever there is an urgent need to address complex health conditions through solutions that account for social factors and move beyond a purely biomedical model. Through our collaboration across University College London, the World Health Organization and Culture Action Europe, we have been exploring how the arts – as multi-modal activities that affect multiple dimensions of our health and wellbeing – can be leveraged to support public health across Europe and empower individuals to live healthier, longer and more fulfilling lives. But what needs to happen at the EU policy level to make this happen?

Our analysis of over 170 international policy documents published in The Lancet Public Health demonstrates that, whilst there is a growing commitment to incorporating the arts into public health, more needs to be done. One of our key findings was that there was a greater recognition from arts policymakers of the value of the arts in health, compared to health bodies. There have long been challenges with creating systems change within public health that can incorporate complex understandings of health and illness that recognise a social approach. And this is needed in the context of valuing the importance of the arts within healthcare ecosystems. However, intergovernmental and cross-country collaborations are one way to share best evidence practice, whereby equal commitment across arts and health bodies can support with creating positive change.

The arts need to be an integral part of the EU’s health strategy and as a core pillar of its upcoming mental health strategy

The Culture For Health initiative is one example of successful cross-country collaboration that has improved our understanding of the evidence relating to arts and health and how this evidence can support policymaking. Through building on the 2019 WHO scoping review on arts and health, which brought together results from over 3000 studies, the 2022 Culture For Health report adds additional evidence from 399 new studies, which improves our understanding of the role of the arts in subjective and community wellbeing and in the context of COVID-19. Through this exercise, we have seen a clear need for more dedicated and financial support. Notably, the arts need to be an integral part of the EU’s health strategy and as a core pillar of its upcoming mental health strategy. Within this, the approach must be one that is holistic and recognises the complex health challenges we face today, including the importance of health promotion and prevention. To realise this, increased investment is needed through combining resources from different major budgets, for example, health, culture and social care.

However, calling for the incorporation of the arts into health creates the need for increased understanding of how to implement arts programmes and to do this in ways that can complement pre-existing health and social care structures and pathways. Our research at UCL has shown that strengthening the links between clinical and community care is vital to achieve this, such as through scaling social prescribing schemes. These schemes refer people from health services into community arts programmes, with potential for supporting cost-saving for health services through drawing on assets that already exist in our communities. Such a system also supports with improving social connections: a known mechanism for improving facets of individual and community health. The complexity of arts programmes, nonetheless, needs to be recognised within such schemes, acknowledging that different social and cultural contexts may create different needs with regards to the content and delivery of the arts. At the EU policy level, we need to see increased commitment to such programmes and associated action in order to create the infrastructure to link clinical and community care.

We need to bring together decision-makers across Europe for roundtable discussions and events to share knowledge and ideas

A clear challenge here is also addressing health inequalities. Our research has shown that access to the arts is unequal, and there are barriers relating to socio-economic status, demographics, geography and health conditions. Targeted arts programmes are needed that recognise and address patterns of inequality, improving arts provision and making it affordable or freely available, as well as ensuring programmes are culturally inclusive. This also requires working in collaboration with those living with health conditions to create and sustain arts programmes, ensuring that policies are underpinned by the needs of our communities.

Finally, none of this will be possible without creating the infrastructure to enable policy discussions and collaborations across research, policy and practice. In the immediate term, we need to bring together decision-makers across Europe for roundtable discussions and events to share knowledge and ideas. In the longer-term, a Centre for European Culture, Health and Well-being as an independent organisation is needed: recognising the value of the arts and advancing the field in ways that can support capacity-building, training and systems change.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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