Cultural Institute
Aug 5 · 7 min read

On 20 June 2019, the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds hosted a conference for researchers, arts professionals and clinicians, providing research and evidence to support arts as a tool to improve mental health outcomes.

Close to 100 delegates from NHS, community healthcare, education, academia, arts and culture attended to discover how the arts and cultural participation can help improve mental health outcomes for children and young people. This event was generously supported by the Oakley endowment.

View video recordings of the conference sessions

Young people, mental health and the arts

The scene was set by a keynote address was made by Dame Benny Refson, founder and president of schools’ mental health charity Place2Be.

Young person’s perspective

For the first session, young people from a range of backgrounds and experiences shared their perspectives around how the arts had contributed to their own better mental health.

The panel was chaired by Kimberley Robinson, founder of mental health charity Keep Real, and included Tee Hogan, a filmmaker and graduate of MAP Charity; Anna Doherty a postgraduate student at the University of Leeds; Jonny Price and Caitlin Gorman, actor involved in Leeds Playhouse’s creative engagement programmes.

The panellists discussed accessibility to arts activities, especially outside mainstream education, and the erosion of the arts curriculum in schools. Several of the panellists had found cultural participation had played a role in developing their own well-being during periods of transitions and mental health difficulties.

The discussion touched on the important social media can play for young people to access supportive communities but also can increase mental health difficulties.

New technologies

Artists and makers joined educators and researchers for a panel discussing how technology can aid access and inclusion into cultural practice for children and young people.

The panel was chaired by artist and Cultural Institute project manager Steve Manthorp, and included Cat Powell and Jade Richardson from Artfelt at Sheffield Children’s Hospital; Claire Garside a maker and PhD student at the University of Leeds’ School of Education; Abbie Canning and Darius Powell from QClub Derby QUAD; and Gail Dudson and Chris Morris, Yorkshire Youth and Music.

The panel discussed opportunities and limitations of using digital and new technologies in mental health projects with young people. For Cat and Jade from Artfelt, new VR techonologies opened up new paths to engaging very sick children in creative worlds while remaining within a clinical setting. For music practitioner Chris Morris, technology can provide an access point for young people to begin to engage with creating music.

Evaluating mental health outcomes

The final panel discussion of the day was chaired by Professor David Cottrell, Foundation Chair in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Leeds and considered the evaluation and measurement of mental health outcomes.

Professor Cottrell was joined by Professor Anna Madill from the University’s School of Psychology; Space2’s mental health project manager Paul Barker; Helen Linsell, the artistic director of Dance United Yorkshire; and June Stevenson, the CEO of Artis Foundation.

The panellists discussed the need for evaluation, and throughout the day presenters and attendees shared their best practice and resources to aid practitioners measure the impact of their work. Please see the bottom of this post for links to useful resources.

Practical workshops

Conference attendees gathered into smaller groups to attend workshops sharing practical information and opportunities for hands-on experiences, led by experienced practitioners.

Independent writer and director Anthony Haddon used children’s picture book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak to explore emotions from a child’s and adult’s point of view.

Sarah Lyon and Ione Barton from Yorkshire Dance shared practical learnings from research undertaken by the University of Leeds into the health, wellbeing and empowerment of young people from deprived urban areas in a youth dance programme.

Attendees had a chance to join Abbie Canning and Darius Powell from QClub to explore using VR and technology with young people with additional needs, and discover the variety of the work that young people have produced whilst at QClub.

Paul Barker from Space2 led a session on creating the right environment for young people to create a campaign challenging mental health stigma, and participants had an opportunity to explore the resources they have created.

Finally, Gail Dudson and Chris Morris from Yorkshire Youth and Music presented a workshop titled ‘The hardest to reach’ alongside Ian Nicholls from Adel Beck Secure Children’s Home, discussing how music and arts activity benefits young people in secure accommodation.

A creative conference

Alongside panel discussions, screenings and workshops, creativity in various forms brought the conference to life.

Ellie Harrison, artistic director of multimedia arts project The Grief Series, presented a powerful performance-lecture reflecting on her own story as a young artist during a time of loss and transition, and how art helped her to find a unique space to grow and flourish.

The day ended with a performance titled “hush…”, by young performers from Dance United Yorkshire. Developed by the dancers themselves, the piece explored the need to keep secrets and the desire to share them.

The conference also featured live-illustrations by Abigail and Chloe Baldwin, founders of Buttercrumble creative design agency, which interpreted and re-imaginged the topics of the day into engaging hand-drawn graphics.

Next steps

Our June 2019 conference is part of an ongoing programme spearheaded by the Cultural Institute to investigate the connections between arts and health.

The Arts and Health programme brings together University of Leeds researchers from fields including sports science, medical humanities, the history of medicine and impact-orientated humanities research with arts practitioners, clinicians and policymakers.

In partnership with Leeds City Council and other organisations across the city, we are developing the Leeds Arts, Health and Wellbeing Network (LAHWN). The network aims to connect clinicians and public health bodies with a range of organisations and arts professionals who are engaging in arts and health activities in Leeds.

The conference was the first event co-hosted by LAHWN, which aims to facilitate discussion between different sectors and enable its members to form collaborative groups in areas of shared interest.

Clinicians and public health practitioners, people who use arts and health services, their families, researchers who are investigating health and wellbeing through the lens of arts and culture, artists whose practice broadly addresses issues of health and wellbeing, creative and cultural sector professionals and third sector organisations are all invited to sign up to join.

Sign up to the network


Health and wellbeing is a priority for Leeds Cultural Education Partnership, a strategic network of arts, cultural, educational and community organisations, businesses and city council representatives which aims to grow the aspirations and talents of children and young people through access to high quality arts and cultural opportunities.

The UK’s first national Centre for Cultural Value to collect and measure evidence of cultural value will be led by Dr Ben Walmsley at the University of Leeds. The centre has five priority areas, including evidencing the tangible benefits of arts and culture on people’s wellbeing and physical and mental health.

The Cultural Learning Alliance provides statistics on the impact of arts in schools and the Case for Cultural Learning.

The Culture Health and Wellbeing alliance is an Arts Council England sector support organisation with plenty of resources in their website.

There are 15 Academic Health Science Networks across England, and connect NHS and academic organisations, local authorities, the third sector and industry.

Arts Council England have a number of relevant resources, including an assessment of the current evidence base around the place of arts and culture in health and wellbeing and in the criminal justice system. See also a summary of the impact of arts, health and wellbeing for older people.

The Cultural Commissioning programme 2013–17 was funded by Arts Council England and delivered by NCVO, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. It focussed on mental health and wellbeing, older people, and place-based commissioning.

Cultural Institute

News, opinion pieces and opportunities from the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds.

Cultural Institute

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Forging partnerships between @UniversityLeeds and creative and cultural sectors to increase pioneering research, boost engagement & enhance student opportunity.

Cultural Institute

News, opinion pieces and opportunities from the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds.

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