IN 1883, the superintendent of England’s Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally ill wrote about a groundbreaking project to get patients involved in creating art
“… we have been engaged in painting artistically one of the male infirmaries, and although it has been somewhat difficult to get a sufficient number of the patients occupied, yet, on the whole, the result has been satisfactory …”, he wrote, adding “we have had not only kindly assistance from ladies, who have no connection with Bethlem, but we have had several patients among the ladies who have developed quite a taste for the work…”
In the late 19th century, art was considered a distraction from the tedium of asylum life, something that could save patients from the “morbid introspection” often considered a factor in mental illness.
In the more recent past, art played a crucial role during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, helping to reduce stigma and communicate safe sex messages to diverse communities.
The Keith Haring Foundation
today continues the philanthropic work of one artist, whose graffiti-inspired work explored themes of love and death until he died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31 years.
Connections between art and health may not be new, but these days there is a growing body of evidence
suggesting participation in the arts may bring measurable benefits in a broad range of conditions as well as in preventive health.
Around Australia, some very creative projects are bringing together artists and clinicians with the aim of improving outcomes for patients.
The wonderful HUSH project
, initiated by Melbourne physician Dr Catherine Crock, works with leading musicians to produce soothing music that is used in health care settings.
The recordings are now used in 12 children’s hospitals around the country, in operating theatres, treatment rooms and waiting areas.
Dr Crock has also been involved in the “Hear Me” live performance
, written by playwright Alan Hopgood in collaboration with the Australian Institute for Patient and Family Centred Care.
The 40-minute play is designed for audiences of health care professionals and aims to improve safety and quality in health care by focusing on the importance of patient and family involvement. The performance is followed by a facilitated discussion.
Some projects use the arts to connect with communities that might otherwise be difficult to reach.
A project from BreastScreen NSW
, for example, won the state’s inaugural Arts and Health Award
this year for its use of art workshops to bring together women from Chinese- and Arabic-speaking communities, the two groups with the largest number of unscreened women.
While individual projects can be transformative, what has often been lacking in the past has been a more systematic approach from governments and bureaucracies.
But perhaps that is changing as authorities seek new strategies to promote population health and reduce health care costs.
The federal government’s National Arts and Health Framework
is encouraging more serious consideration of the potential, and I recently participated in consultation for applying this initiative in NSW
Integrating the arts into health services offers “a demonstrated range of social, artistic, environmental, cultural, economic and health benefits, including the potential to improve the quality of health care”, the federal framework says.
That sounds like something worth pursuing.
Wishing you all a healthy and creative festive season.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.