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Legacy Launch Pad

How Funding for the Arts Can Help Our Mental Health Crisis

At this surreal time in our political landscape, funding issues are understandably focused on defense, healthcare, Social Security and other pressing matters, in turn making it all too easy to forget the arts.

I would argue that funding the arts is pressing as well.

The past week has taught us — well, far more than we want to learn. And one of those unpleasant messages is that we are a nation that is increasingly unhinged.

Even before the pandemic, mental health problems such as depression and anxiety were on the rise in children between the ages of six and 17. And throughout every month since March, numerous studies have reported near historic increases in mental health issues.

What does this have to do with the arts? Well, a 2014 NIH study found that those diagnosed with major mood disorder showed “significant decreases in depression scores” after five consecutive days of expressive writing. And a similar 2011 Harvard study of college students had similar results. The Harvard study’s lead author, Dr. James W. Pennebaker, concluded that writing about traumatic experiences not only helps people mentally organize and give meaning to the experience but also inspires them to be more willing to open up to others about it.

Obviously art alone can’t solve our mental health crisis; therapy, medication, meditation and a myriad of other treatments need to be the first line of defense. But there’s no denying the fact that art can help us feel better. Added bonus: in helping us feel better, it also helps the bottom line since the global economy loses $1 trillion in lost productivity every year to anxiety and depression disorders alone.

As someone who’s written extensively about her addiction and recovery, I’ve experienced firsthand just how healing writing about personal struggles can be. As a storytelling show creator, I’ve also seen what can happen when people bring that writing to the stage. Seeing someone take an experience that hurt and then re-frame it in a way that makes them the hero — since they are, after all, the one telling the story — is to witness healing in front of your eyes.

Because of what I do for a living, I end up encouraging a lot people who’ve struggled through specific hardships to write about those experiences. I get to tell them what they know deep inside but still seem to need to hear — that they should share their stories — and I get to see joy and relief as this permission floods through them.

And yet the arts get neglected. Trump certainly wasn’t the first: former actor Reagan wanted to eliminate the NEA altogether and funding for it was cut by almost 40 percent when Clinton was in office.

But despite what Christie’s might lead you to believe, support for the arts doesn’t have to be that expensive: the NEA makes up only roughly.004 percent of the federal budget.

It could actually be argued that the NEA helps bolster the bottom line. After all, it funded the initial workshops that became Driving Miss Daisy, which ended up bringing in over $145 million in the box office in 1990 (the equivalent of roughly 280 million today). Of course, that’s pennies compared to the more than one billion Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has made — a relevant fact since Miranda workshopped his first musical at the O’Neill Musical Theatre Center, which is partly funded by the NEA.

Most art, of course, doesn’t turn into ridiculously successful movies and plays. But all of it documents the times we live through, allowing future generations to know what their predecessors experienced in a sort of visceral way history books will never be able to provide. And bad times often produce great art: the Marx Brothers, Dorothea Langue and Thornton Wilder all emerged during the Great Depression while the Dada movement was born out of World War I.

This may not sound important in light of, say, our healthcare and agriculture needs, but art impacts more people than you might think.

Nearly 70 percent of adults listen to music every day. Okay sure, you may say, but does telling Alexa to play Bob Dylan really prove anything? Perhaps not but over five million people work in the arts industry and an estimated 81% of Americans want to write a book. While clearly a major percentage of the latter won’t follow through on that desire, a large swath of our population is creatively inspired.

Thanks in part to the NEA, a wide variety of people create art — whether it’s through projects like Challenge America, which offers art classes to Native American tribal member’s senior residents, Dia de Los Muertos festivals or strong arts programs at such historically Black universities as Grambling State University and Southern University Shreveport Louisiana.

Then there’s the NEA-sponsored program Poetry Out Loud, which has featured, since its 2005 inception, more than four million high school students. Getting kids to write and perform is about far more than just nurturing creativity and expression: high school students that take four years of arts and music classes score an average of over 150 points higher on the SAT than those who take half a year or less. Studies also show that participating in the arts brings about better behavior and more involvement in the community. Simply put, writing helps us connect and feel less alone — and, as a bonus, helps those reading, seeing or listening to the work connect and feel less alone.

Imagine a program where writers far better known than I am — the Elizabeth Gilbert’s, the Malcolm Gladwell’s, the Toni Morrison’s and Amy Tan’s — could grant a global collection of aspiring writers that permission. Creating that sort of experience could be easier than ever — offer students the opportunity to enter writing competitions where winners could be granted group talks with literary deities so that they could share their ideas, hear that they’re worthwhile and receive direction on how to write about them. Call it a free, interactive version of the behemoth company Masterclass.

Or imagine if the sort of storytellers we hear on NPR’s Moth program could guide students through the process of making their experiences into amusing anecdotes from the stage.

These seemingly tiny projects can make a shocking difference. Almost two decades ago, newly sober and wanting to give back to the recovery movement, I volunteered at a rehab for former inmates in South Central LA, choreographing the dancing for the musical The Wiz. While many munchkins dropped out along the way, those who committed experienced the satisfaction of performing in front of an audience that broke out in applause — a sound I got the feeling many of them had never imagined hearing for themselves. I recently ran into one of the patients — now sober over a decade and a successful musician — and he told me that performing in the play was the first bit of evidence he had that a sober life could be fun.

In the end, thanks in large part to government funding, great art is currently being created — some of it we’ve already seen on walls and in murals in the wake of Black Lives Matter, some of it we’ve read in books and music created since March. In the end, this art will not only tell the story of the surreal period that we’re living through; it will also have helped us survive it.

Find out more about Anna David by going to www.annadavid.com.

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Anna David

Anna David

NY Times bestselling author of 8 books, publisher, TV/TED talker. Want the simplest template ever to write a book elevator pitch? Go to: bookelevatorpitch.com