Richard Benge: The arts isn't a 'nice to have', it's a road to good health

Ross Cowan, who had a stroke in 2015, aged 59, and attends the art therapy programme at Mapura Studios in Auckland.
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Ross Cowan, who had a stroke in 2015, aged 59, and attends the art therapy programme at Mapura Studios in Auckland.

OPINION:  As the election campaign heats up, there's much debate and discussion about New Zealand's investment in health. Physical and mental health issues challenge our reputation as a successful society and we should all be concerned.

If we welcome the notion that our economy must be sound and that two of its drivers are creative industries and creative entrepreneurs, there must be a deeper strategic investment in the variety of artistic and creative opportunities. This strengthens the health of our society. It makes us happier.

Research conducted in the UK provides evidence that participating in the arts improves quality of life, aids recovery from illness and saves money. This research applies equally to New Zealand, where we face similar challenges such as an ageing population and an increase in people experiencing mental illness and distress.

Richard Benge is executive director of Arts Access Aotearoa.
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Richard Benge is executive director of Arts Access Aotearoa.

Creative Health: the arts for health and wellbeing is a 190-page report based on research commissioned by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing in the UK. The research was conducted over two years, and included hundreds of interviews and dozens of case studies with patients, medical and social-work professionals, artists and arts administrators, academics, policy-makers and politicians.

READ MORE:  Creative approach to mental health underfunded despite evidence it works

Among its findings, it shows the positive impact of the arts applies throughout life: for example, children involved in arts activities demonstrate improved cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development, and are more prepared to succeed academically.

A 2014 Creative New Zealand survey shows that nearly 90 per cent of New Zealanders think the arts is good for us and 82 per cent think the arts helps improve society. In addition, 74 per cent of young New Zealanders feel very positive when they do creative things, of whom 35 per cent say it makes them feel "brilliant".

Reece Tong is an artist at Pablos Art Studios in Wellington. Its director, Deidre Dahlberg, says creativity can provide ...
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Reece Tong is an artist at Pablos Art Studios in Wellington. Its director, Deidre Dahlberg, says creativity can provide a means to get back out into the world after mental illness.

In towns and cities throughout New Zealand, there are community-based art hubs – "creative spaces" – providing people with access to artistic expression (visual art, dance, drama, music making) in supportive and empowering settings.

Many of these spaces cater for mental health service users, people with intellectual or physical disabilities, or young people. Others are open to everyone and attract a cross-section of the community.

Unfortunately, most of these creative spaces are underfunded and under-resourced. I challenge local and central government politicians to read this UK report and then visit a creative space in their region to see for themselves the health and wellbeing outcomes they're providing. Arts Access Aotearoa can put you in touch with one in your region.

A work by Ross Cowan, who had a stroke in 2015, aged 59, and attends the art therapy programme at Mapura Studios in Auckland.
Image: Ross Cowan

A work by Ross Cowan, who had a stroke in 2015, aged 59, and attends the art therapy programme at Mapura Studios in Auckland.

People of the Wellington region are fortunate to have places like Vincents Art Workshop, Pablos Art Studios, Mix, King Street Artworks and Te Ara Korowai – all providing free access to an art studio, materials and tutor support.

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Pablos Art Studios in downtown Wellington was the recipient of this year's Arts Access Holdsworth Creative Space Award. Pablos has supported thousands of people who have experienced mental ill-health or become socially isolated.

Deidre Dahlberg, director of Pablos, says people whose self-esteem and sense of connection have been damaged often require a bridge between the health system and their family, friends and the wider community.

Pablos provides that bridge. In an eloquent speech when she accepted the award from Minister for Disability Issues Nicky Wagner, Deidre said: "People can use creativity as a means to get back out into the world, whether they have burnt out, gone through depression or are living on the street. People can leave their troubles at the door and rebuild their confidence and resilience through creative work and overcoming creative challenges." 

Stroke is New Zealand's second biggest killer, with approximately 9000 people having a stroke in this country every year – one an hour, every day of the year. In 2009, it was estimated that stroke costs the country  $450 million per year.

The UK report highlights a music therapy project between an orchestra and a stroke service. An evaluation of the music project showed that 86 per cent of patient participants cited relief in disability symptoms such as reduced anxiety, improved concentration, and increased confidence and morale. 

In Auckland, the creative space Mapura Studios runs an art therapy programme for people who have experienced stroke. Its director, Diana McPherson, says that hospitals deal with healing the body but when people who have had a stroke go back to their community, they're not equipped to deal with the emotional and psychological impact.

"We started the programme in 2010 and since then, we've worked with more than 100 people. We've seen significant improvements in their confidence and ability to adjust and fit back into their changed lives."  

These few examples show that it's time to look seriously to the arts and creativity as a way to improve health outcomes for individuals, their families and communities.

We hear too often from decision makers at policy level that the arts are a "nice to have", like some sort of privileged club for when budgets are in surplus. This condescending perspective belies a basic ignorance about creativity and how the arts reach across all cultures, ages, incomes and abilities. Strategic investment in the arts and cultural expression strengthens individual and collective health.

Richard Benge is executive director of Arts Access Aotearoa.

 - The Dominion Post

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