Engaging with the arts can be beneficial for both mental and physical health, concludes the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Europe in the most comprehensive review of evidence on arts and health to date
The report, officially launched earlier this week in Helsinki, Finland, reviews arts activities - such as dance, crafts and reading - that seek to promote positive mental and physical health and prevent illness, as well as manage and treat physical and mental ill health and support end-of-life care.
In the report, Dr Piroska Östlin, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: “Bringing art into people’s lives through activities including dancing, singing, and going to museums and concerts offer an added dimension to how we can improve physical and mental health.
“The examples cited in this groundbreaking WHO report show ways in which the arts can tackle ‘wicked’ or complex health challenges such as diabetes, obesity and mental ill health. They consider health and well-being in a broader societal and community context, and offer solutions that common medical practice has so far been unable to address effectively.”
The report emphasises the positive effects the arts can have on our health and wellbeing throughout our lives. For example, reading to young children before bed can improve sleeping habits and concentration at school. Later in life, music can support cognition in people with dementia. Singing, in particular, has been found to improve attention, episodic memory and executive function.
The WHO reviewed the health benefits - through either active or passive participation - in five broad categories of arts activities. These include:
- Performing arts: music, dance, singing, theatre and film
- Visual arts: crafts, design, painting and photography
- Literature: writing, reading and attending literary festivals
- Culture: going to museums, galleries, concerts and the theatre
- Online arts: animations, digital arts, etc
Arts in healthcare
When looking at the use of arts in healthcare settings, certain activities can be used to supplement or enhance treatment protocols. For example:
- Listening to music or making art (e.g. crafts) have been found to reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, such as drowsiness, lack of appetite and nausea.
- Dance has repeatedly been found to provide clinically meaningful improvements in motor scores for people with Parkinson’s disease.
- Activities such as music, crafts and clowning have been found to reduce feelings of anxiety, blood pressure and pain in emergency settings, particularly for children, but also their parents.
The report also highlights that some arts interventions not only produce good results, but can also be more cost-effective than more standard biomedical treatments. Arts interventions can combine multiple health-promoting factors, such as physical activity and mental health support, and have a low risk of negative outcomes. And, because arts interventions can be tailored to have relevance for people from different cultural backgrounds, they can offer a route to engage minority and hard-to-reach groups.
Following the report, several countries are said to be looking at prescribing arts and social schemes for both prevention and managing mental and physical ill health, whereby medical professionals can refer patients to arts-related treatment.
The WHO have outlined policy recommendations for decision-makers in the health sector, including:
- Ensure the availability and accessibility of arts-for-health programmes within communities.
- Support arts and cultural organisations in making health and wellbeing part of their work.
- Promote public awareness of the potential health benefits of arts engagement.
- Include arts in the training of health-care professionals.
- Invest in more research, and evaluate the implementation, of arts activities in healthcare.
Engaging in arts activities as a form of self-care can help to maintain positive mental and physical health, as well as preventing the onset of further issues. Read 9 Tips to Rebuild Your Reading Habits and How Sewing Can Support Your Mental Health for ideas on how you can introduce the arts into your life.