As we all recover from long COVID-19 lockdowns, the creative arts can support our mental health – but we need ongoing and joined up research to better understand its impact.

By Professor Jane Davidson, University of Melbourne

For millennia, humans have engaged in creative artistic activities, often through rituals that express people’s individual identity and social cohesion.

Having endured the longest COVID-19 lockdown in the world, Victorians in particular have missed the chance to engage in many forms of social interaction. They, along with the rest of the country, have become more aware to the fragility of mental health and the need for mechanisms to support feeling well are more important than ever before.

As we recover from lockdowns, the creative arts can support mental health challenges.

For those of us advocating for arts activities to be embraced by mainstream health and wellbeing services in Australia, we believe the moment has arrived where our knowledge needs to be turned into positive action.

We at the Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative need the government to support an Arts and Health strategy to define a national direction and provide the thinking behind it, as well as a strategic plan to detail the steps necessary to achieve it.

The pandemic produced a surge in home-based creative arts engagements for many people and families, with many reporting that things like listening to music helped them feel better.

A growing body of research evidence shows that the creative arts can offer opportunities for meaning-making, while also regulating and expressing our emotions.

The arts can offer a platform for shared understandings that can help establish and develop positive relationships, while also providing a place to learn skills, gain experience and knowledge, as well as develop an appreciation of aesthetics.

The flip side, however, is that professional creative and performing artists have been denied opportunities for expression and, crucially, employment which has placed psychological and economic burdens on many artists.

We need to protect all members of society, including those who can offer effective routes to wellbeing through their profession. And this also means our artists.

As we recover from lockdowns, the creative arts can support mental health challenges like loneliness, depression and anxiety that the social isolation, job insecurity and tension of living with COVID have caused.

COVID has meant that professional creative and performing artists have been denied opportunities for expression.

Now is the right time to make the benefits of engaging with creative arts available to all Australians, and to ensure we support our professional artists as they recover from the strain of the past two years.

Already in other countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, there are movements towards ‘social prescribing’ the arts – referring a patient to non-medical activities – to address health concerns.

We would like to see something similar here in Australia.

Back in 2014, a National Arts and Health Framework advocated a range of measures including integrating arts practices into healthcare settings and using alternate evidence-based models of care, like arts practices.

At a practical level, many exciting creative arts projects with mental wellbeing and social health goals have been produced in Australia, including performing arts programs like dance, theatre and music interventions.

One example is community choral singing – something that improved participants’ social engagement and their feelings of wellbeing.

Visual arts, design and craft programs for wellbeing include painting, sculpture and mural work.

There are art classes focusing on mindfulness (which is sensing and feeling in the moment) aimed at relaxing the body and mind as a way to help reduce stress. Or there’s the Tjanpi weavers of the Central and Western desert who come together to make beautiful baskets and sculptures from natural fibre to express their culture, share stories, skills and experiences.

The pandemic produced a surge in home-based creative arts engagements for many people and families.

Exhibitions and installations have included opportunities like those by the Coast and Country Primary Care in New South Wales with its Mental Health Art Works! Exhibitions. Here, art is explored as a form of expression to create better understanding of mental health issues in the community.

These diverse creative arts activities that are happening in all sorts of places – in homes, hospitals, museums, schools, care homes, theatres and playgrounds. But this has meant that the work, while compelling, has remained siloed and the broader impact hasn’t been drawn together.

Alongside key creative arts practice, we need ongoing research to refine activities and determine measures of progress, outcomes and impacts on health and wellbeing. Much like the practices themselves, the research effort has remained localised, and has tended to be small-scale, short term and uncoordinated.

The Australia Council for the Arts is planning an Arts, Creativity and Mental Wellbeing Summit for early 2022 in Canberra. It will bring together politicians, advisors, practitioners and researchers for policy action.

We are also working with colleagues at the National Institute for Experimental Arts at University of New South Wales and CREATE at University of Sydney to draw together a network of researchers to pool findings and develop new ways to tease out the complex and active interactions that structure the relationship between the arts and wellbeing.

In understanding how these ingredients operate and differ we can then begin to appraise their impact on our mental health.

We are also putting Australia – rich in its cultural diversity and with its unique urban, regional and remote lifestyles – front and centre in our explorations of artistic interventions and their associated challenges and benefits.

Already in other countries there are movements towards ‘social prescribing’ the arts.

Finding ways to expand accessibility, so that more people can experience the wellbeing benefits offered by participating and engaging with the creative arts is also central to our research agenda.

As Australia recovers from its long lockdowns and the travails of COVID-19, our engagement with creative arts can help make life joyful once more, and they can also become a powerful framework for structuring wellbeing outcomes.

Professor Jane Davidson is Acting Director, Victorian College of the Arts; Chair, Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on Pursuit. The text of the article excluding its images is reproduced here in accordance with the Creative Commons Licence.

February 2022