Getting creative with health…

Creativity is a fundamental part of human nature, and the use of the arts to improve health and wellbeing is not a new idea. Yet we still tend to think of the arts as the remit of the talented few with most of us giving up artistic pursuits as we leave school and get older. Unlike other behaviours that can be beneficial to our health, such as exercise, a varied diet and social support, we don’t think of creative engagement as something that can be inherently beneficial for all. Even with art therapy creative engagement is thought of as a vehicle to deliver the real treatment, psychotherapy, as opposed to the art itself improving a person’s mental health.

However this perception of the arts is being challenged by recent research that aims to establish the beneficial impact of creative engagement on health and wellbeing. This research has shown that participation in community musical groups can significantly improve anxiety and depression

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Dance classes can improve motor function in people with Parkinson’s disease


And cultural and creative engagement is associated with a reduced risk of frailty, retention of cognitive function and reduced risk of depression in older people.




The importance of the arts to health has been further highlighted by the APPG for Creative Health and Wellbeing report in 2017

that outlined the wide variety of potential health and wellbeing benefits the arts could provide for everyone, not just those we view as ‘talented’. However, if the arts can improve health and wellbeing for everyone, then ensuring everyone has access to creative opportunities is crucial.

The predominant focus of art and health research so far has been on mental health conditions, those with primary diagnoses of anxiety and depression living in the community. Chronic physical health conditions, however, can also have a profound impact on a person’s mental health and yet limit a person’s ability to engage in arts activities in the community, as a result of both symptoms and their treatment regimens. Due to the lack of rigorous research in these populations there is little incentive for policy makers to prioritise the arts in healthcare for chronic diseases, meaning patients who may benefit most from the arts are unable to access them.

Current research at Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Nursing and Midwifery is working to fill in this gap of evidence by exploring the use of an arts-based intervention for patients with end-stage kidney disease whilst receiving haemodialysis.


There are over 30,000 in the UK currently receiving dialysis for end-stage kidney disease .The most common form of dialysis, haemodialysis, is a difficult and exceptionally time consuming treatment that requires patients to attend hospital three times a week. During these appointments they are connected to a dialysis machine that drains and filters their blood, removing excess fluid and waste and taking on the role of the damaged kidneys. A typical haemodialysis session lasts four hours, and during that time patients are confined to a bed or chair and have limited opportunity to engage in meaningful or creative activity. This treatment is not curative, and people must attend these three, lengthy appointments every week for the rest of their lives, unless they receive a kidney transplant. This unique treatment experience has been described by researchers as ‘existential boredom’ due to the profound impact it has on a person’s state of mind.

The research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast involved patient’s receiving one to one art sessions during haemodialysis, to make that time whilst receiving treatment into something meaningful, productive, challenging, and something they could be proud of. Whilst the majority of participants had limited or no experience of art before taking part in the study, there was an overwhelming positive response from both patients and healthcare professionals. Patients and healthcare professionals experienced a variety of benefits such as increases in self-esteem and motivation, an enhanced social atmosphere on the unit, a more holistic approach to healthcare and an overall improvement to their treatment experience. Patients expressed their surprise at being able to pick up a pencil or paintbrush and create something, having always thought they didn’t have an artistic bone in their body.

As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences the researchers from QUB’s School of Nursing and Midwifery will be hosting an event to explore the intersection of creativity, arts and health. This will include an exhibition of visual art and a variety of performances from patients and healthcare professionals, including personal accounts of chronic illness and kidney disease, and descriptions of the impact that the arts have had on their own health and wellbeing.

This event will take place at 7pm on the 6th of November at the Sunflower Public House. You can register for the event here.

Photo by joduma is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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