A growing number of initiatives across Europe are using access to the arts as a tool to improve health and well-being alongside classic medical treatment.
In the Danish town of Silkeborg, a group of new mothers who suffered from postpartum depression reported feeling closer to their newborns, calmer and more optimistic after taking part in weekly singing sessions designed to improve their mental health.
Similar results were also observed in groups also participating in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Music for Motherhood project in four other cities in Italy and Romania.
«Just like being physically active has health benefits, being culturally active also has health benefits,» Nils Fietje, Technical Officer at the World Health Organisation and co-director of its Arts and Health Lab, told Euronews.
“There is a social component to it, of course, which you can get in other ways as well,” he said. “But the music and what it catalyses is clearly a factor that improves response, and we saw a profound impact on the recovery rates of mothers with postpartum depression.”
Arts play ‘major role’ in health
Extensive research has been conducted over the past 25 years into the effect art has on health and well-being.
A WHO report in 2019 found that art plays a «major role» in the improvement of individuals’ health and well-being, as well as the prevention of illness across lifespans. It concluded that «the beneficial impact of the arts could be furthered through acknowledging and acting on the growing evidence base» and included a call for governments globally to promote engagement in the arts.
“That report is like our Bible,» said Kornelia Kiss, who oversees Culture For Health, a project partially funded by the European Commission with the aim of growing awareness of programmes that employ culture for its health benefits across Europe and beyond.
“We’ve taken the Bible and expanded it.”
After 18 months of data gathering, Culture for Health presented its findings at a conference in Elefsina, Greece, on 9 June where it also issued some policy recommendations to be applied on the EU level.
It called, for instance, for the EU to finance training and conferences to draw awareness to the kinds of projects that can be implemented and to boost investment in prevention and health promotion.
It also recommended the promotion of the use of culture-based social prescribing across the EU, as well as the addition of dedicated provisions in policy documents. But the most crucial step, Kiss explained, is «to have these discussions locally, in as many member states as possible.»
‘Let’s put these lessons to work’
Access to culture is mentioned as one of the elements of an individual’s life that has an “important impact on mental health» in the Commission’s long-awaiting comprehensive approach to mental health published earlier this month. Access to nature, sports and proper living conditions are also championed.
«Obstacles to good mental health cannot be overcome within the health system alone,” the strategy document said. “Arts and culture are important in promoting the positive mental health and well-being of individuals and society in general by supporting social inclusion and reducing mental health stigma.”
The EU’s executive has made €1.23 billion in EU funds available to member states to support them in «putting people and their mental health first.»
Speaking at the Culture for Health conference in Elefsina, European Commissioner for the European way of life Margaritis Schinas called the organisation’s policy recommendations “very thought-provoking,” adding the EU must now “draw on all this evidence.”
“We have learned a lot,” he said, «now let’s put these lessons to work.»