British Doctors To Prescribe Arts & Culture to Patients: “The Arts Are Essential to our Health and Wellbeing”

Pho­to by Adam Jones, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The arts and human­i­ties are after­thoughts in many Amer­i­can schools, rarely giv­en pri­or­i­ty as part of a com­pre­hen­sive edu­ca­tion, though they formed the basis of one for thou­sands of years else­where. One might say some­thing sim­i­lar of pre­ven­ta­tive med­i­cine in the U.S. health­care sys­tem. It’s tempt­ing to ide­al­ize the pri­or­i­ties of oth­er wealthy coun­tries. The Japan­ese invest­ment in “for­est bathing,” for exam­ple, comes to mind, or Finnish pub­lic schools and France’s fund­ing of an Alzheimer’s vil­lage.

But every­place has its prob­lems, and no coun­try is an island, exempt from the glob­al pres­sures of cap­i­tal or hos­tile inter­fer­ence.

But if we con­sid­er such things as art, music, and dance as essential—not only to an edu­ca­tion, but to our gen­er­al well-being—we must com­mend the UK’s Health Sec­re­tary, Matt Han­cock, for his “social pre­scrib­ing” ini­tia­tive.

Han­cock wants “the country’s doc­tors to pre­scribe ther­a­peu­tic art- or hob­by-based treat­ments for ail­ments rang­ing from demen­tia to psy­chosis, lung con­di­tions and men­tal health issues,” reports Meilan Sol­ly at Smith­son­ian. The plan “could find patients enrolled in dance class­es and singing lessons, or per­haps enjoy­ing a per­son­al­ized music playlist.”

In a speech Han­cock deliv­ered on what hap­pened to be elec­tion day in the U.S., he referred to a quote from Con­fu­cius that rep­re­sents one par­tic­u­lar­ly ancient edu­ca­tion­al tra­di­tion: “Music pro­duces a kind of plea­sure, which human nature can­not do with­out.” (He also quotes the Rolling Stones’ “Sat­is­fac­tion.”) Hancock’s idea goes beyond aris­to­crat­ic tra­di­tions of old, pro­claim­ing a diet of the arts for every­one.

They’re not just a right in their own terms as the search for truth and expres­sion of the human con­di­tion. We shouldn’t only val­ue them for the role they play in bring­ing mean­ing and dig­ni­ty to our lives. We should val­ue the arts and social activ­i­ties because they’re essen­tial to our health and well­be­ing. And that’s not me as a for­mer Cul­ture Sec­re­tary say­ing it. It’s sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly proven. Access to the arts and social activ­i­ties improves people’s men­tal and phys­i­cal health.

We’ve like­ly all come across research on the tremen­dous health ben­e­fits of what Warnock calls “social activ­i­ties,” main­tain­ing friend­ships and get­ting out and about. But what does the research into art and health say? “The med­ical ben­e­fits of engag­ing with the arts are well-record­ed,” Sol­ly writes, cit­ing stud­ies of stroke sur­vivors mak­ing great strides after per­form­ing with the Roy­al Phil­har­mon­ic; dance lessons improv­ing clar­i­ty and con­cen­tra­tion among those with ear­ly psy­chosis; and those with lung con­di­tions improv­ing with singing lessons. Addi­tion­al­ly, many stud­ies have shown the emo­tion­al lift muse­um vis­its and oth­er cul­tur­al activ­i­ties of a social nature can give.

Sim­i­lar tri­als have tak­en place in Cana­da, but the UK project is “simul­ta­ne­ous­ly more com­pre­hen­sive and less fleshed-out,” aim­ing to encour­age every­thing from cook­ing class­es, play­ing bin­go, and gar­den­ing to “more cul­tur­al­ly focused ven­tures.” The pro­pos­al does not, how­ev­er, ful­ly address fund­ing or acces­si­bil­i­ty issues for the most at-risk patients. Hancock’s rhetoric also per­haps heed­less­ly pits “more pre­ven­tion and per­spi­ra­tion” against “pop­ping pills and Prozac,” a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that seems to triv­i­al­ize drug ther­a­pies and cre­ate a false bina­ry where the two approach­es can work well hand-in-hand.

Nonethe­less, a shift away from “over-med­ical­is­ing” and toward pre­ven­ta­tive and holis­tic approach­es has the poten­tial to address not only chron­ic symp­toms of dis­ease, but the non-med­ical causes—including stress, iso­la­tion, and sadness—that con­tribute to and wors­en ill­ness. The plan may require a rig­or­ous­ly indi­vid­u­al­ized imple­men­ta­tion by physi­cians and it will “start at a dis­ad­van­tage,” with 4% cuts per year to the NHS bud­get until 2021, as Roy­al Col­lege of Nurs­ing pub­lic health expert Helen Dono­van points out.

Those chal­lenges aside, giv­en all we know about the impor­tance of emo­tion­al well-being to phys­i­cal health, it’s hard to argue with Hancock’s premise. “Access to the arts improves people’s men­tal and phys­i­cal health,” he tweet­ed dur­ing his Novem­ber 6th roll-out of the ini­tia­tive. “It makes us hap­pi­er and health­i­er.” Art is not a lux­u­ry, but a nec­es­sary ingre­di­ent in human flour­ish­ing, and yet “the arts do not tend to be thought of in med­ical terms,” writes pro­fes­sor of health human­i­ties Paul Craw­ford, though they con­sti­tute a “shad­ow health ser­vice,” bring­ing us a kind of hap­pi­ness, I’d argue with Con­fu­cius, that we sim­ply can­not find any­where else.

via The Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Japan­ese Prac­tice of “For­est Bathing”—Or Just Hang­ing Out in the Woods—Can Low­er Stress Lev­els and Fight Dis­ease

How Fin­land Cre­at­ed One of the Best Edu­ca­tion­al Sys­tems in the World (by Doing the Oppo­site of U.S.)

The French Vil­lage Designed to Pro­mote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to the Pio­neer­ing Exper­i­ment

Med­i­ta­tion is Replac­ing Deten­tion in Baltimore’s Pub­lic Schools, and the Stu­dents Are Thriv­ing

On the Pow­er of Teach­ing Phi­los­o­phy in Pris­ons

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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