In this latest Guest Blog, Daisy Fancourt, New Generation Thinker 2017 and Senior Research Associate in the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL talks about the effect of arts on health. Interestingly, Daisy also appeared on BBC Breakfast on 19th July talking about the All-Party report “Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing” on the benefits of arts prescribing and arts in health.
On 17 March, I took part in my first interview as a 2017-2018 BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker at the Free Thinking Festival at Sage, Gateshead. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, a previous New Generation Thinker herself, was my interviewer. She asked about my work: how I got interested in the field and what I’m working on. But then Eleanor asked a question I wasn’t expecting. “What’s the limit here. The arts can support our health in some ways, but surely they can’t, for example, fix a broken leg?”
This is a good question, not because the arts can fix broken legs, but because it is a question that comes from wanting to understand the scope of what research is showing: wanting to know how excited we should get about the new research papers coming out each month, but also where this excitement should stop because the arts do have a limit. They do not represent complete solutions to all health problems.
This question has stuck with me since. Although there is now a plethora of evidence showing the effects of the arts on a range of mental and physical health conditions [https://global.oup.com/academic/product/arts-in-health-9780198792079?lang=en&cc=in], it could be possible to see the use of the arts in health as the icing on the cake: a wonderful way of enhancing health within societies once the fundamentals of healthcare are in place, but unnecessary, perhaps even flippant, in the context of major health challenges. However, if we look around the world, we actually see the opposite. Sometimes, in the face of the toughest health challenges, there are still important roles for the arts. A pertinent example of this is the Ebola virus epidemic from 2013-2016.
During the outbreak in West Africa, some of the major challenges were the abundant rumours and misunderstandings about the disease. There were instances of people who were affected hiding from medical staff, Ebola survivors being outcast from their societies and even healthcare workers being murdered. [http://democracyinafrica.org/improving-public-health-messaging-on-ebola] To combat this misinformation and support public health messaging, one of the strands of action was to mobilise the arts.
‘Spread Knowledge to Stop Ebola’ programme was developed by WeOwnTV; a San Francisco-based non-profit organisation. It involved Sierra Leoneans themselves being trained in film making and creating short films in their own words to raise public understanding about Ebola. The films built on local oral traditions and storytelling and combatted misinformation. www.sierraleone.weowntv.org
‘Stop Ebola Now: Through Creative Storytelling’ was a programme with UNICEF Liberia that involved the development of a 5-episode radio serial drama that addressed the reality of the Ebola epidemic. The programmes were sensitive to local cultural values and perceptions of Liberian audiences. The programmes contained songs and jingles alongside drama to help fight myths, including those surrounding survivors to help them reintegrate into communities. www.mediaimpact.org/ebola/guide.html
And Songs such as Ebola in Town by Rapper Shadow were released that warned about how Ebola could be caught. With the most crucial messages looped over an electro-dance beat, the rap song became popular in Liberia along with a ‘no-touching’ dance. Details of songs regarding Ebola can be found here
Of course the Arts can directly fix a broken leg. But they are also not confined to only being the ‘icing on the cake’. During emergency situations such as epidemics, the arts do have a role to play: they have the power to turn critical health messages into something accessible, emotive and sensitive to cultural traditions. They have the power to make people listen.
For more information on the use of the arts in Ebola response, visit http://arts.ufl.edu/academics/center-for-arts-in-medicine/resources/artist-repository/
To find out more about the use of the arts in health, my new book Arts in Health: Designing and Researching Interventions is now available to order: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/arts-in-health-9780198792079?lang=en&cc=in
If you are interested in international collaboration, did you know AHRC allows international collaborators on most of its schemes? Please see our Website for details of such opportunities.
New Generation Thinkers 2018 is now open for applications. For more information please visit the website