When people feel unwell, they turn to a medical professional with a simple demand: make me better. Allow me to function in a way that makes me forget that I was ever vulnerable.
Advances in modern medicine have thankfully meant that an increasing number of conditions can be treated quickly and effectively – often as easily as following a course of antibiotics.
But society has ended up looking to medication as the solution for any and every health problem. And an increasing number of doctors and patients are realising that not every ailment can – or should – be treated with a pill.
This is the starting point for the new ‘arts on prescription’ movement sweeping through the UK, empowering communities with its offer of dance classes, reading lists or choir access instead of medication. It’s a doctor-driven movement that has found a champion in the UK’s chipper young Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who recently pledged £4.5m to support such schemes across England.
And it all started with a statement of intent from a healthcare provider in the North West of England.
Halton Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), responsible for planning the healthcare for 125,000 people, has long said that health is “much more than the absence of disease”. The body fleshed out its ideas in an “arts and wellbeing manifesto”, written by ‘changemaker’ Jo Ward, explaining why new forms of social intervention could sustain a health service in financial trouble and tackle root causes rather than just symptoms.
“There may be no cure for dementia but through a range of community based activity, like dance, we know people with dementia can learn to live well with what they have,” the manifesto reads.
“There are no pills for loneliness and poverty but a rich cultural context can help ensure residents are better connected to each other and feel more able to cope.”
The doctors stressed the power of singing in a choir to help people manage their asthma, by controlling breathing and increasing lung capacity; the potential for reading and creative bibliographies to support recovery from mental health challenges; and for dance to improve communication and concentration for those with dementia.
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These beliefs aren’t plucked out of thin air: research covered by the magazine ArtsProfessional found that group singing helps mothers recover from postnatal depression, a state of affairs estimated to affect one in eight new mothers; and that dance classes, with their fun community focus, are 55% more effective than traditional falls prevention courses for older people. Arts and health charity Aesop recently expanded its celebrated ‘Dance to Health’ programme across England with a £2.3m investment.
Following these interventions, 27 healthcare providers across the North West of England committed to developing a social prescription plan, which it was promised would be implemented across the region by 2019. Arts on prescription is becoming an increasingly mainstream concept, even becoming used by doctors in other countries around the world.
And Hancock – who was previously the UK’s Culture Secretary – remains every bit as energised about the potential for culture to support and further care. In a recent speech to youth platform My Runway Group, he stressed the power of human connection and the arts in improving health and wellbeing. “The whole system needs to be more focused on helping keep people well, rather than just fixing them,” he said.
“And when people are ill, not just medicating but getting them truly to recovery.”