Cultural Prescribing: Why arts in health is not an “add on”

All these lockdowns have shown us that people need arts & culture more than ever. People turned to cultural prescribing activities like crafting, online choirs, watching theatre and baking; they did this to meet a need to keep busy, stay connected and make sense of the world.

Yet the public health messaging during the Covid-19 crisis has continually focused on fitness and physical exercise. This sentiment is  prevalent in social prescribing, which focuses on exercise and benefits advice; all of these are activities that address immediate needs of the patient. However, it is important to realise that cultural prescribing activities can also support people’s health and wellbeing.

I am the Director of London Arts and Health, a charity supporting the arts and health sector in London. We are working hard to ensure that cultural prescribing is not forgotten in the referral process.

Arts in Health and Wellbeing is Important

Thinking about the Arts in health and wellbeing can enhance your social prescribing practice

We need to talk about Cultural Prescribing

The arts confront the human condition and listens to the soul. They encourage active engagement with the world around us. As a result, they help people to keep learning and to contribute to their communities.

Arts in health and wellbeing programmes across the capital are constantly using diverse and dynamic disciplines in a variety of health, care and community settings for expressive, restorative, educational and therapeutic purposes as part of cultural social prescribing. Some work preventatively, some enhance recovery, whilst others use the arts to improve the quality of life for people with long-term or terminal conditions.

For example, BreatheAHR has a programme Melodies for Mums which supports new mums at risk of postpartum illness. This project is currently being scaled up across London or Kazzum Arts who offer a programme called Speech Bubbles a speech and language intervention for school aged children.

Cultural Prescribing and Covid-19

Arts and cultural prescribing played an important role in treating people during the Covid-19 crisis

Arts and cultural prescribing played an important role in treating people during the Covid-19 crisis

The arts are very responsive and the Covid crisis forced our members to quickly adapt to the new normal as part of social prescribing. We delivered classes online, posted art packs and worked with vulnerable groups to decrease the digital divide. Our team also encouraged groups to continue their activity online. Furthermore, we continue to work with the most vulnerable members of society who have the least access to arts and creativity. Consequently, these people benefited greatly from a cultural social prescribing referral.

Lockdown has only increased the isolation felt by many. However, our members have been working innovatively with projects like the Storybox Project : At Home offering an inclusive programme of activities that enables anybody supporting an individual / or group of people living with dementia, to deliver top quality, person centred activities throughout the pandemic. Singers can continue to interact with others through virtual choirs such as the Sofa Singers. The March Network have put together lots of groups and art activities for people on it’s Creative Isolation page.

In our current economic climate, creative arts in health and wellbeing offer a professional contribution to mainstream health care as part of the social prescribing movement.

According to the 2017 Creative Health report, the arts can contribute to shortening the length of hospital stay, reduce patient medication and lower reliance on GP consultation. They offer personalised non-medical health strategies that support many of the declared NHS outcomes, including improving the effectiveness of care and quality of patient experience.

Including Arts & Culture in a Social Prescribing Offer

Applying the arts in health and wellbeing practices creates engaging activities that improve a patient's quality of life.

Engaging with arts and cultural activities can provide a range of health benefits.

Social prescribing discussions often focus on the direct referrals made by GPs, link workers and other healthcare professionals. However, social prescribing can play a role in cultivating the infrastructure of arts and cultural activities to support wellbeing.

During times of prolonged crisis, more needs to be done to ensure arts are funded and are included as part of supporting people’s health in a social prescribing offer. 

This support needs to be delivered in the community for the foreseeable future. In response, we developed a tool for London based arts organisations to register to a database pARTner Up. This will encourage partnerships with partners from other sectors.

Nevertheless, the arts’ important role in people’s health is enjoying wider recognition. In the new national Thriving Communities programme that launched in November 2020, it is a pre-requisite for an arts or cultural organisation to be a partner when applying for some of their funding.

In addition, there’s a variety of arts and cultural organisations across England that already operate in this space. These organisations have played a key role in establishing social prescribing as a grass-roots movement. As the result, these workers laid down the foundation for NHS England’s more recent plans for a universally available service.

So, whether you are a commissioner, a social prescribing link worker or a voluntary sector organisation delivering activity, please don’t forget just how important cultural  prescribing is in this landscape. It is not just a ‘nice addition’.  Arts in health and wellbeing really can enable people to live longer, healthier lives.