The Mental Health Benefits of Arts Engagement

By Emma Wright

Youth Mental Health in a COVID-19 Struck World

We live in a world in which, according to the Black Dog Institute, “one in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year”, and “Australian youth have the highest prevalence of mental illness than any other age group”. Our youth are especially vulnerable now as we navigate a global pandemic, the first of which our young population have faced in their lifetime. The consequences of disease outbreaks such as Covid, Black Dog states, include “anxiety and panic, depression, anger, confusion and uncertainty”, with “estimates of between 25% to 33% of the community experiencing high levels of worry and anxiety during similar pandemics”. The World Health Organisation echoes this in saying that the required lifestyle changes presented by Covid-19 pose challenges to all, and that adaptation to this new world will take time.

The Role of the Arts

Research suggests arts engagement is an effective means of supporting and improving the mental wellbeing of our young population. According to Arts Health Resources, there “is a growing body of evidence that supports the notion that active involvement in creative activities can provide a wide range of benefits, including the promotion of well-being, quality of life and health”. Meanwhile the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation published in September of 2019 that “[g]etting involved with the arts can have powerful and lasting effects on health. It can help to protect against a range of mental health conditions, help manage mental ill health and support recovery[,]… boost confidence and make us feel more engaged and resilient… alleviat[ing] anxiety, depression and stress”.

In Paul Devlin’s Restoring the Balance: The Effect of Arts Participation on Wellbeing and Health, member of Parliament of the United Kingdom Margaret Hodge writes “art can raise the spirits and strengthen the soul, it can help us make sense of our surroundings” and “can fundamentally affect and change an individual. It is precisely this quality that gives art both its intrinsic benefit and its power to make a positive impact on people’s wellbeing”. Lord Howarth, also a past member of Parliament, contributes that there “is a healing process that is inherent in artistic activity… Self-expression commits the whole of your being, your personality and your faculties to an activity, and that I think is an inherently healthy and good thing”.

The Speech Bubbles project by Dr Jonathan Barnes conducted and analysed the data of recorded sessions with referred young participants who partook in artistic activities, resourced by Cantebury Christ Church University. It concluded that “theatre-making promotes emotional awareness and empathy”, and that “[f]luency, vocabulary, inventiveness and concentration were enhanced in the large majority of referred children. The research also found significant positive developments in motivation and confidence. Teachers and their assistants credited the drama intervention with notable improvements in attitude, behaviour and relationships over the year. Aspects of many children’s psychological well-being also showed marked signs of progress”.

Studies from Australia

VicHealth released a publication, Promoting Mental Health Through Accessing Arts, which states that by “participating in cultural activities, individuals and communities can address issues of health and wellbeing”. This is based on the fact that the arts allow for cultural and self-expression, and can provide a safe, inclusive, tolerant space to learn to “respect and embrace difference”. Young people are able to establish and embrace their unique, personal identities, whilst engaging with and developing belonging within a community. The arts promote inclusion, open up important conversations, and encourage collaboration, discussion, and interpretation in a safe supported fashion. In today’s isolated world, these opportunities to connect and feel “part of something bigger than the individual” are of upmost importance.

Arts Queensland revealed in a study that people “with 100 or more hours per year of arts engagement (i.e. at least 2hrs per week) had significantly better mental wellbeing than those with none or lower levels of engagement”. Additionally, Artistic Director of the Australian Theatre for Young People Fraser Corfield conducted a report, the ATYP Impact Evaluation Final Report 2018, which surveyed 1200 participants and found that 94% of respondents said participating in drama “had a positive impact on their overall sense of wellbeing”, and 89% reported it “had a positive impact on their self-confidence”. Think Mental Health (WA) support this, recommending that people do something creative in order to look after their mental health and wellbeing.

The Healing Potential of Drama Workshops

The Resources to Recover organisation writes that participation in artistic activities support mental wellbeing in providing access to self-discovery, emotional and stress relief, and increasing self-esteem. It also points out that the body’s release of dopamine when stimulated through art can be a significant aid to those battling anxiety or depression. Reset Brain and Body writes “the performing arts have been scientifically proven to help kids overcome anxiety, depression, and offer emotional release”, crediting this to the positive influence of creativity on a person’s mood and emotions, the social setting and group engagement, the facing of fears and required vulnerability which increases confidence and reduces anxiety, and space to “express and reflect on difficult emotions”. They also suggest the emotional healing powers of drama extend beyond the direct participants and to the greater community, the audience.  

Australian organisation 5 Ways to Wellbeing lists connection and relationship development, being active, learning and trying new things for a sense of achievement and to gain confidence, awareness, and helping others, as the five keys to mental wellbeing. Participation in drama ticks all of these boxes. In drama workshops, students connect with their tutors and peers, as well as the material they explore, online or in-person. They are physically and mentally active, their minds and bodies stretched and pushed in safe, rewarding ways. Students learn new lessons pertinent to the creative industries and life more generally, experimenting with new techniques and exercises. Through working with texts, existing and devised, they become aware of world issues such as mental health, which allows for healthy conversation and awareness raising. Finally, students work together and help one another in rehearsal and performance, and potentially, as above-mentioned, help community through the works they perform.

As demonstrated, the benefits of drama are not limited to a creative skillset, as valuable as one is, but go as far as improving and protecting mental health and wellness, and providing social and life skills that may transfer within and beyond the arts.

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