Q&A: Why the arts matter

For more than a decade, Mike White has been at the forefront of the arts in health movement in the United Kingdom. Prior to a visit to Australia to attend an international conference on the topic, he spoke to Government News about the role of the arts in improving communities.

What first interested you in this link between the arts and health?

Back in 1988 a family doctor in general practice rang me to ask if I could help find a community artist to come and work in his clinic waiting room.

He said that stressed patients every day presented him with problems that his medical training had not prepared him for because their problems were more psycho-social in origin.

He felt that his clinic should become a place for people to find out what matters for health through what he termed the ‘enchantment’ of participatory arts.

For me this was mindblowing and it changed the way I viewed the role of art in society.

I saw that in the field of health promotion, artists could assist in articulating and making manifest in a caring and concerned way those factors which contribute to the sicknesses of our civilisation – stress, toxins, diet, allergies, drug and alcohol dependency, cancers, heart disorders, AIDS.

The arts could develop imaginative educational methods that inform and motivate both the community and individuals to initiate effective self-health care programs.

In the early stages of working in this space how difficult was it to convince policy makers of the link and its attributes?

It has proved difficult, however, to get the work mainstreamed into health services, so it has tended to be sustained through successive time-limited partnership initiatives addressing issues such as health inequalities, workforce development and patientcentred care.

But this has produced a rich diversity in the work and also drawn in the education sector, voluntary organisations and local government. Evidence alone won’t sway policy makers; we need to get public opinion behind arts in health and connect it into issues around quality of life and social value.

On this issue how do you engage rural-remote communities who aspire for the same outcomes, but don’t have the budget or community support to bring about change?

In my experience, the most successful projects are actually small-scale and have a lot of volunteer input. Sustaining the vision of a project is more important that sustaining funding and policy.

At city level, you can cluster small projects together into arts and health programs. But at rural level you can see the impact that a project can have on a whole community.

A long-time artist colleague Alison Clough is joining me at the Port Macquarie international conference in November. She is creative director of a healthy living centre in a farming district of North Yorkshire.

Looking Well began in 1995 when Alison initiated a public consultation that got local schoolchildren to interview elders in the town. The consultation focused on the specific health needs of a rural area with difficult-to-access health services.

Looking Well now owns its own building, which aims to provide an informal community space where arts, health promotion and lifelong learning programs can come together in a setting designed to promote a positive disposition, build confidence and skills, and enable people to support each other and solve problems together.

When I visited Western Australia in 2007 at the invitation of Healthway, I could see that small towns there were ripe for adopting a Looking Well type facility that could be made relevant to their culture and needs.

How important are community collaborations?

I think the most interesting evidence base for arts in health is coming out of research that is not based in the arts but in epidemiology.

There is substantial evidence that the quality and extent of our social connections impacts on our health as a prime determinant, and that loneliness is as much a risk factor as smoking or obesity.

The arts counter social exclusion by being able not only to model the factors that make for healthy living but also to build relationships between us.

Mike White is Research Fellow in Arts in Health, Centre for Medical Humanities from Durham University, UK and will be a keynote speaker at the International Arts and Health Conference to be held from November 10 to 13 in Port Macquarie. For more inforamtion visit http://www.artsandhealth.org/.

Read the complete interview in the October issue of Government News magazine.

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