By Eva Amsen

In November 2019, the World Health Organisation’s regional office for Europe published a report showing that the arts have a beneficial effect on health and well-being. A few months later, the report seemed all but forgotten when the Covid-19 pandemic took over everyone’s attention. But perhaps it’s time to look at it again, because it might be even more important now than it was in November.

The report, by Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn of University College London, summarizes years of scientific research into the effect of different forms of arts on our health. The list of the hundreds of studies it references takes up 70 pages – more than half of the report. They considered different art forms, such as the performing arts, visual arts, or taking part in cultural activities. The final conclusion is that “the overall evidence base shows a robust impact of the arts on both mental and physical health.” In addition to that, they found that the arts were able to address complex health issues – such as those that have both physical and mental components – and that arts interventions often offered an economical solution.

Some of the examples where arts interventions have been beneficial include the use of dance as a therapy for Parkinson’s Disease, the role of music in language development, or the positive effect of arts engagement on mental health in several different settings.

Even though this report was written months before the Covid-19 pandemic, it covers several areas that could be particularly interesting at the moment. For example, Fancourt and Finn mention the role of the arts in getting health messages out to a wider public. They cite studies that have used arts communication to alert people to symptoms of Ebola, to inform them about HIV prevention, or to combat misinformation about vaccines.

Some of these studies are directly relevant to Covid-19. Collectively, they suggest that the arts can help reach and convince people about steps they need to take to prevent the spread of disease. In addition, art therapy could be used to treat mental health issues among people who are isolating, or to aid the long-term recovery process of people who were ill.

Despite those benefits, the arts have not been prioritised in the last few months. Anything that involves close contact (like theatres or choirs) has been paused, physical events have been cancelled, galleries and performance spaces closed. Across the board, arts programmes have been hit hard. The work of art therapists has also been made challenging by not being able to meet people in person. The American Art Therapy Association published a set of tips for their community encouraging them to use video and online tools as an adapted form of their usual therapy. Considering that some of the positive effects of group art therapy lie in people connecting with others, an online version just isn’t quite the same.

But even though the arts were not a priority during the peak of the pandemic, places where the worst of the outbreak seems to have passed may want to start thinking about how the arts can be a part of the healthcare recovery process. Especially as several vaccine trials are already in phase III, it’s a good time to to think about involving artists in healthcare communication, for example.

After all, as the 2019 WHO summary showed, the arts have earned their place in keeping us happy and healthy.


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