In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service’s Arts on Prescription connects patients to cultural activities that match their interests — and funds their participation. Researchers there have linked community arts and cultural engagement with better mental health and overall wellbeing, lower risk of depression, and fewer childhood adjustment problems.
Their findings so far are promising — studies from the United Kingdom and EpiArts Lab revealed improvements in depressive symptoms, cognition and memory, and overall well-being in older adults. Among adolescents, participation in arts and cultural activities was shown to reduce loneliness, risk of substance use, behavior and attention problems, as well as result in fewer reportedly anti-social or criminalized behaviors and improved self-control. but the vast differences between the health care landscapes of the two countries pose some significant challenges. But here in the U.S., you won’t find many doctors sending patients to choir practice or insurance companies covering painting class.
“Our health care system doesn’t have a structure that enables people to engage in things that are enjoyable and support their health. We’re acculturated toward taking medicine. If your doctor says, ‘I think you need to take a pottery class or a dance class, to get out and be more social and more creative,’ is that going to feel like you’re not being taken seriously?” Says the University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine and the Veterans Administration research director, Jill Sonke, a research associate professor in UF’s College of the Arts.
That requires collaboration across the health care, insurance, public health and arts sectors at the local and state level. Proponents of social prescribing need to show not just economic benefit through reduced burden on providers, but evidence that Americans will accept it.
“We’re at a moment in the evolution of this work where it’s time for people who understand its value to collect around it,” UF’s College of the Arts Dean Onye Ozuzu says. “It’s wonderful to see our center as the hub of this electrifying conversation.”
This program aims to infuse social and cultural activities into daily life. The activities are led by artists and community-based organizations, not health care workers or therapists, and while clinical treatments are intended to serve their purpose, then end, social and creative arts involvement can continue after medical intervention concludes.
The World Health Organization’s Arts + Health Lead, Christopher Bailey said, “There’s a difference between curing something and healing something. The arts are about healing.”
Chief of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Service at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, Dr. Chuck Levy says, “Part of our mission is to change how people perceive the realm of health care. We didn’t always believe that diet and exercise were important, or that a physician should ask about those things and advocate for that. The next step may be for physicians to say, ‘What are you doing for creative expression? How are you engaging in aesthetic experiences to enrich your life? And if you don’t have anything going on, maybe that’s something we should discuss.”
The big picture goal is that Americans understand that, like exercise and good nutrition and wearing seatbelts, being creative and engaging in cultural activities is a resource that we have available to us for their health.