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The UN’s World Health Organization Says Art Is a Powerful Prescription

A study published by the World Health Organization, which collected data from 900 different publications over a 19-year span, offers important validation for the arts and new solutions for medical professionals.

An art therapy class in Beirut (via Cluster Munition Coalition/Flickr, © John Rodsted/CMC)

“Art is a wound that turns into light,” once said 20th-century artist Georges Braque. His words ring truer than ever in the wake of a comprehensive new study published by the World Health Organization (WHO), reconsiders the connection between culture and health through unprecedented academic research. Bringing together 900 different publications over a 19-year span, the 146-page report begins with a simple question: “What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and wellbeing?” Ultimately, it finds that art has positive overall effects for mental and physical health at all stages of life.

Taking a broad look at the arts, the report focuses on five major categories with proven positive health effects through either active or passive participation, including performing arts, visual arts, literature, online arts, and culture. In the accompanying press release, WHO’s Regional Director for Europe Piroska Östlin asks the questions many people involved in the arts might already be thinking: “Should we be surprised that art can improve health? Should we be surprised that art can give us wellbeing?” Yet the report offers important validation for the arts and new solutions for medical professionals.

The impetus for the report was to provide a basis for new global policies surrounding art and health, offering a blueprint for healthcare professionals by showing how arts and culture programs can be used to treat specific health conditions. The rise in research and interest in art-related health interventions is perhaps in response to the continued pressure healthcare places on governments, as just last month US consumer prices rose thanks to the swelling costs of healthcare. In February of this year, the World Healthcare Congress in Europe featured an “an arts, health and social change agenda” that brought together medical professionals, academics, and policy makers. This latest WHO report is the ideal culmination in a year where “art wellness” has moved from the sidelines to center-stage.

A pottery class (via Rob Swystun/Flickr)

Results from the report are organized under two broad themes: prevention and promotion, and management and treatment, illustrated through 700 different case studies. For example, music played a key role when it came to preventative treatments by inspiring attitudes of self-empowerment and independence, while art therapy sessions were effective for those with chronic or terminal illnesses. Considering that the psychological side of a physical illness is often overlooked by the medical community, it’s not surprising that art therapy has the power to enhance both the mental and physical wellbeing of patients. Each case study “considers health and wellbeing in a broader societal and community context,” Östlin says, “and offers solutions that common medical practice has so far been unable to address effectively.”

While the medical community just recently began customizing treatments and drugs for individual patients — raising myriad questions around cost, access, and fairness — artistic expression can easily be tailored to individuals and made available to everyone. “Bringing art into people’s lives through activities including dancing, singing, and going to museums and concerts offers an added dimension to how we can improve physical and mental health,” says Östlin. The report stresses the important role the arts could play in reaching remote or disadvantaged groups who often face the greatest health risks.

For artists involved in art therapy and other related disciplines, this report signals new acceptance within global medical, political, and academic communities, and has the potential to open up greater participation and collaboration. It suggests supporting the “implementation of arts interventions where a substantial evidence base exists,” conducting further research between art/health treatments, and raising overall public awareness about the benefits of a greater arts presence in the medical community. “The examples cited show ways in which the arts can tackle complex health challenges such as diabetes, obesity and mental illness,” the report claims, further supporting artists already working in these roles.

Educating arts organizations to make health and wellbeing a strategic part of their work is as important, the report finds, as supporting the arts and humanities in the education of medical professionals. As the planet warms and displacement becomes commonplace, we might find ourselves depending on the arts for creative solutions to our future wellbeing, while culture, health and the social sectors have the opportunity to come together in new ways to enhance the lives of all communities and, in particular, the underserved.

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