Strengthening Mental Health through The Arts (Including Mine!)

Americans for the Arts partners with the National Lieutenant Governors Association (NLGA) to educate Lt. Governors, state leaders, and their staffs about the importance of the arts and culture in America. We were recently invited to write a strategy perspective on the importance of the arts in mental health, which NLGA distributed to their members. This blog is an adaptation of that article.

Every weekday at 6:00 p.m., I join a group of neighbors on the street for our socially distanced Pandemic Neighborhood Singalong. Typically, 6-8 of us gather and pick songs to sing, often based on the news of the day. They have ranged from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on July 4th to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on Inauguration Day to “They Call the Wind Mariah” one stormy summer’s day. Right now, it is dark and wintry cold, yet this Monday-Friday music experience never fails to lift my spirits, to connect me with others, and to heal the sense of isolation that comes from telecommuting and staying home through the pandemic. Whether ballad or pop song or anthem, the music always transports me to a better place and freshens my mind. We have logged well over 200 songs and not missed a day since March 23. I am so grateful.

Americans are stressed—the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, polarizing politics, remote learning for students, unemployment, a fragile economy—so it is no surprise that mental health issues are spiking across the country. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that one-third of the population is showing signs of anxiety or depression—a tripling over just the previous year. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that nearly half of Americans believe the pandemic is harming their mental health.

As community leaders seek to maintain the wellness and mental health of their residents amidst challenged budgets, new research shows the arts are an effective resource in reducing depression and anxiety and increasing life satisfaction—improving both quality of care and the financial bottom line.

The Arts Aid in the Mental and Emotional Recovery of Patients

In recent years, there has been a growing understanding of the benefits, and prevalence, of arts programs being used in healthcare systems. A 2007 survey of arts in healthcare institutions conducted by The Joint Commission—which accredits the nation’s 22,000 hospitals and healthcare entities—showed that nearly half of these institutions have active arts programs (45%), and all indicators point to an even larger percentage today. When hospital administrators were asked, “Why the arts?” 80% of the respondents said because “they aid in the mental and emotional recovery of patients.”

Arts in healthcare programs are as diverse as the arts themselves. The most common are permanent visual art displays, performances in public spaces, and bedside art activities for patients. Patient activities include music, dance and movement, arts and crafts, and creative writing. Many hospitals have “art carts” that make the rounds to the patients and may even include poster art so patients can personally select a visual image to hang on their hospital room wall.

As we have been reminded during the pandemic, mental health challenges in the healthcare setting extend well beyond those who are ill. Families of the patients as well as medical staff are under enormous stress, emotional strain, and isolation. Many programs extend beyond the patients to caregivers with the express purpose of strengthening the entire healing system: 58% of programs serve the patient’s family and 42% are for staff to help them deal with the stress and anxiety of their working environment. Some hospitals even boast their own staff orchestras. Research shows that the availability of arts programs in hospitals reduces nursing staff turnover, which is a significant money saver for healthcare systems.

Arts Heal the Mental and Emotional Injuries of Military Service Members

There are more than half a million military service members who are living with conditions that compromise their mental health and well-being, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Service members bearing these invisible wounds are finding treatment and healing through the arts. Creative Forces—a partnership between the U.S. Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts, with administrative support from Americans for the Arts and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine—is built on a foundation of clinical research that connects artistic expression (drawing, music, dance, and creative writing) with positive benefits on brain function, mood, and overall wellness. Published research studies on Creative Forces programs document benefits such as fewer flashbacks and nightmares, improved self-regulation of anger and anxiety, ability to cope with loss and grief, and more hope and confidence. The arts are providing new hope and relief for millions of service members, their families, and healthcare providers.

Just 30 Minutes of the Arts Per Day to Improve Mental Health

COVID-19 and Social Distancing: Impact of Arts and Other Activities on Mental Health is an ongoing study tracking 80,000 adults in the United Kingdom and United States to gauge the pandemic’s impact on mental health. The study demonstrates that the arts provide mental health benefits to the public—even during the pandemic—combating the ill effects of isolation and loneliness associated with COVID-19. Preliminary findings show that just 30 minutes of active arts activities daily may lower anxiety and depression and increase life satisfaction (reading for pleasure, playing or listening to music, gardening, engaging in a creative hobby). Begun by University College London in the U.K., the study has been extended to the U.S. in partnership with the University of Florida and Americans for the Arts, with U.S. results expected in spring 2021. All are welcome to join and participate in this ongoing research.

Similar arts and mental health work done previously in the U.K. has resulted in major health policy changes, including Arts on Prescription. In this system, medical professionals write patients a prescription not for a jar of capsules, but rather to partake in a series of creative arts experiences (choirs, book clubs, drama groups, community gardens) as a means of improving health and well-being.

Arts Agencies are Leading the Way in Arts and Mental Health

The arts are a proven contributor in keeping us mentally healthy, helping us heal when we are not well, and reducing healthcare costs. The NEA as well as local and state arts agencies support arts programs that address a vast array of mental health and personal well-being issues. With those benefits, it is no wonder that 73% of Americans favor government funding for arts in healthcare programs and 68% of Americans agree that the arts improve health and the healthcare experience. If simply singing “This Little Light of Mine” with neighbors during a pandemic can lift my spirits and reduce my sense of isolation, one can only imagine how powerful they are in a therapeutic setting.